Alabama life already changing under tough immigration law

Alabama's immigration law, billed as the toughest on illegal immigrants, is already having an impact on farmers, teachers, and contractors.

Even before federal judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn upheld the toughest parts of Alabama's groundbreaking immigration law Wednesday, daily life in Alabama had already begun to look – and feel – a little different.

The state's agriculture commissioner says some farmers are mourning squash rotting in the fields, after migrant workers either left or avoided the state, some in fear that their children would be used as deportation tools as schools next week begin checking the immigration status of incoming students.

Two days before Judge Blackburn proffered her ruling, Alabama announced a new car-registration database called ALVerify, to head off fears of citizen revolts against long courthouse lines as residents prove their citizenship.

And those working to rebuild the state from this spring's massive tornado outbreak predicted delays under the expectation that Hispanic workers will be harder to find to lay roofs, build decks, and pour foundations.

"The question is, now that the law has passed and is in effect, who will fill these labor-intensive jobs?" says Jay Reed, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors trade group of Alabama. "To date, we haven't had anyone waiting in line."

To be sure, Blackburn blocked several parts of the law that strayed from what she saw as federal precedent, including the ability of the state to nullify contracts signed by undocumented workers and new fines for those who pick up migrant workers for daywork or church purposes.

But she reaffirmed other measures that had failed court review in states like Georgia and Arizona – in particular, a clause that makes it illegal for anyone not legally in the United States to apply for a license plate, driver's license, business license, or other license. The decision, which took many by surprise, probably laid the groundwork for crackdowns in other states, as well as for legal challenges that are likely to rise to the US Supreme Court.

"[The] ruling is nothing short of a great victory for the State of Alabama and for those who support the rule of law," Alabama House majority leader Micky Hammon (R), co-author of the legislation, told reporters. "Many of the law's most vocal critics, including the Obama Justice Department, the ACLU, and other liberal extremists, were simply proven wrong."

Patterned on similar laws in Georgia and Arizona, the law was passed by the first Republican supermajority in Montgomery since Reconstruction, and it was signed this summer by Gov. Robert Bentley (R).

Alabama trailed only South Carolina in the number of Hispanics moving to the state in the past decade, but that trend has probably been curtailed now – even reversed, some say. About 120,000 undocumented workers live in the state, up from 25,000 10 years ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Hispanics make up about 3 percent of the total population in Alabama.

Towns like Alabaster, Pelham, and Collinsville saw up to 1,000 percent increases in Hispanic residents in the past decade. Now, the faces of such communities change dramatically as those residents, who had become what Alabama activist Isabel Rubio has called "part of the daily fabric," pull up stakes.

"The new law touches on all aspects of employment and everyday life, from contracts to schooling to renting an apartment," writes Challen Stephens of The Huntsville Times.

At the very least, the law will challenge the workforce dynamics in the state, in which more-labor-intensive jobs have largely been abandoned by the historic white and African-American populations. Even when the Alabama economy was booming a few years ago, the Associated Builders and Contractors had trouble recruiting American workers, who were more interested in pursuing a four-year college degree.

The group's 2012 platform will focus on getting whites and blacks back into manual labor jobs, where career success requires strong backs and a solid work ethic.

For their part, farmers are looking to several new guest-worker proposals in Congress to help their plight. But they're already making changes to contracts for next year's crops in anticipation that workers will be hard to find.

"This decision affects every farmer and every person who hires one or more employees," says Mac Higginbotham, a commodity director at the Alabama Farmers Federation in Montgomery. "The fact is, a lot of Americans aren't willing to do temporary jobs that involve intense work in the hot sun."

John McMillan, Alabama's agriculture commissioner, has urged the state to force residents receiving unemployment benefits to take farm-labor jobs or risk losing their benefits.

"[The Legislature] had no idea of the unintended consequences," Mr. McMillan told a meeting of Alabama editorial writers recently.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the law is the mandate that schools check the immigration status of incoming students. State officials have said the rule won't be used to ferret out families who are in the state illegally. But taken together, such measures are pushing even legal Hispanic workers out of the state, says Mr. Reed of the Associated Builders and Contractors. It's also putting educators in the position of enforcing immigration law.

"Teachers are not immigration officers, but we will obey the law," Nez Calhoun, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County School System, told The Huntsville Times. "This is another responsibility for schoolteachers that they were not expecting to have to do."

While the impact of the law will primarily be felt by Alabamians who interact with, and depend upon, the Hispanic community, it may also affect how Alabamians view themselves, and how others view the state.

"I think it reflects nationally on Alabama, the kind of state this is," says Raymond Mohl, a sociologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But after the state "dodged a bullet" by allowing people to update car registrations online instead of at the courthouse, he adds, "I don't think it will affect most people at all. There's an ambivalence here, a cultural politeness, but it may just be kind of surface level."

Any blowback is a price worth paying, Alabama's Republican leadership says. "Our goal has always been to make sure Alabama jobs and taxpayer-funded resources are going to legal Alabama residents, and Judge Blackburn's ruling is a significant win for this cause," said Del Marsh (R), Senate president pro tem.

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