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Monday, May 16, 2022

Columns

Fields of plenty


Alabama’s harsh immigration law, HB56, has worked — undocumented immigrants are leaving the state of Alabama in droves. Republican state legislators should congratulate themselves on how well they have done their jobs. Perhaps they could throw themselves a banquet in celebration of their success and feast on some, soon to be scarce, Alabama produce. Or, maybe they could all go on a scenic tour of Alabama’s farmland and look at all of the crops that are withering on their vines. These crops are withering because there is no one available to pick them. Most of Alabama’s agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants and have fled the state in fear of being deported.

So, if the goal of this law was for Alabama’s Latino population to decrease, then these legislators have definitely been successful. However, if their goal was to help Alabama’s economy recover, then these legislators have failed miserably.

According to a report by the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research, HB56 has created a shortage of 10,000 workers and could cost Alabama $40 million. Many of these workers come from Alabama’s agriculture sector, a sector that has been dominated by migrant workers for over 60 years.

According to Demetrios Papademetriou, president and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, migrant workers have always supported Alabama’s agriculture sector.

“This is a sector and an industry… that a long time ago, going back to the 1940s and probably before that was abandoned. It was abandoned to foreign workers,” Papademetriou said in an interview with The Huffington Post.

However, some proponents of HB56 see the opening of Alabama’s agriculture sector to US workers as an easy way to decrease Alabama’s 9.9 percent unemployment rate — this isn’t going to happen. Alabama farm owners have been extremely vocal about the inability of US citizens to work agricultural jobs. But this is not to say that some of Alabama farmers have not tried to hire legal workers.

Alabama tomato farmer Wayne Smith is one of these farmers, but he has grown disillusioned about his good-intentioned endeavor.

“People in Alabama are not going to do this. They’d work one day and then just wouldn’t show up again,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press, echoing the sentiments of many Alabama farmers.

Part of the problem is that on most field workers get paid for the amount of produce they can pick. On Smith’s farm, this amounts to $2 for every 25-pound box of tomatoes. Smith said that someone with experience picking tomatoes can make as much as $300 a day. However, unskilled workers— American citizens— usually make far less.

Many of these workers show up for one day of work, make $25, and then decide to try a line of work that is not as backbreaking as picking produce.

“They are trying very hard,” said fellow Alabama tomato farmer, Ellen Jenkins in an interview with TheGrio.com. “They just don’t have the (skills).”

These workers don’t have the skills, and members of Alabama’s Legislature don’t have the skills. The state of Georgia implemented a similar immigration law earlier this year, and the same thing happened to its agriculture sector. Had Alabama legislators done their homework, or maybe taken a short road trip, they would have know this would happen.

Many Alabama farmers are now having  to watch their produce rot unharvested in their fields. If the field worker shortage continues, many of these farmers will have to make the decision to plant smaller crops next season. This will result in an additional drop in jobs.

Perhaps instead of scaring undocumented farm workers out of their state, Alabama legislators should simply increase the amount of H-2A, guest worker programs. This would allow undocumented farm workers to legally work in Alabama’s fields. Farmers would lose some money in housing costs if this were to happen, but this small loss would be far better than simply letting their produce rot in their fields.

Daniel Renfrow is a senior anthropology and print journalism double major and may be reached at [email protected]

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