“There’s not one aspect of my operation that this law hasn’t touched. Without a viable labor source we cannot survive. And when you’ve got payments to make and a family to feed and a farm that may have been in your family for five generations there’s a lot on your shoulders.”
— Jeremy Calvert, Alabama vegetable farmer
Alabama’s new immigration law, H.B. 56, is already devastating the state’s agricultural sector. In addition to the “show me your papers” provisions, the new law requires farmers to use the flawed and costly federal “E-Verify” system to verify the legal status of every worker they employ. It also bars farmers from using the courts to enforce any contracts with an undocumented worker or contractor. And it makes felony criminals of any farmer who provides transportation, housing, or meals to an undocumented worker.
Under Alabama’s H.B. 56:
1. Farmers have lost many skilled workers at peak harvest time. Alabama’s new law went into effect right at harvest time when the need for skilled farm labor was at its height. Because the law had such a chilling effect, many workers were afraid that they would be arrested if they showed up for work. As a result, farms such as J&J Farm reported that it had to scramble to pick the last of its tomatoes with just half its normal workforce, and 80 percent of tomato farmer Chad Smith’s crew vanished when the bill became law.
2. Crops are rotting in the fields. The financial losses from this year’s unharvested crops are not tallied yet. But farmer after farmer painfully recounts the scale of their loss: Tomato farmer Brian Cash said, “We probably left 15,000 boxes in the field. It’s just wasteful.”
3. Farmers lost capital needed to invest in next year’s seeds and crops. The financial losses from rotting crops do not just impact the bottom line this year. The losses will have a severe impact on the ability of farmers to plant next season’s crops. Uncertainly about the labor supply will also force farmers to be very cautious with their investments. William Burkes, a local Alabama farmer, said, “There’s a big concern for next year. I’m cutting back. We won’t plant as much because we don’t know what kind of labor we will have.”
4. Farmers are burdened with new costs to verify the immigration status of every worker. The new law requires every employer in Alabama to use the federal “E-Verify” system to check the status of every worker and to terminate any worker who is unauthorized. Brian Cash, an Alabama tomato farmer, pointed out that “the E-Verify process costs about $150 per prospective employee. An employer must pay the $150 to check the worker’s status, and he gets none of that money back if the worker is found to be here illegally. If you’ve got 10 that don’t make it, that’s $1,500. If you’ve got one that made it, and you just spent $1,650, you’ve still just got one employee. How much more can you do before I say ‘no mas?’ I’m done. Adios, amigo.”
5. Farmers are unable to find local native workers to harvest crops. Agricultural labor is hard work, requiring skill and proficiency that is developed from years in the industry. Alabama farmers know this and they report that they have not been able to successfully employ native-born workers in any sustained way. One native-born worker, Melinda Martinez, who recently started picking produce, said, “I had to go home yesterday. I couldn’t handle it. It’s backbreaking.”
6. Farmers cannot enforce contracts with workers or subcontractors. The provisions of the new law bar the courts from enforcing any contract an undocumented person is a party in. This means that farmers would be unable to enforce contracts they may have entered into for any range of products or services necessary for their agricultural operations. This provision just adds to the already high risk that farmers take on as they try to provide the state’s and nation’s food.
7. Farmers are forced to spend time and money transporting workers. Undocumented farmworkers in Alabama are afraid to drive to work for fear that they will be stopped, asked for “papers,” arrested, and deported. Some farmers concluded that the only way to get their workers safely to the fields is to transport them themselves. But this puts them in violation of the law as well. (see No. 8 below)
8. Farmers are subject to felony convictions for transporting, housing, or feeding their workers. While farmers try to find workers to pick the crops, they are faced with one more harsh provision of the new law: Under Section 13, any persons, including farmers, who transport, house, or feed an undocumented worker are guilty of a crime. If the acts involve 10 or more workers, the farmer can be convicted of a felony, which means the new Alabama law could turn farmers into criminals.
9. Alabama farmers have no access to a legal immigrant workforce. Making matters worse, the broken U.S. immigration system does not allow farmers to legally hire the immigrant workers they need. A cumbersome and burdensome “agricultural worker” H-2A visa program is totally inadequate to meet farmers’ needs. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of the country’s agricultural workers are currently undocumented. Farmers who continue to hire undocumented workers will have their business licenses permanently suspended under the new law.
10. The Alabama agricultural sector will be destroyed. The farmers in Alabama say that the new law will kill a $5.5 billion industry. Brian Cash, an Alabama tomato farmer, summed it up this way: “Tomato production contributes $1.6 billion a year to the state’s economy, but without immigrant labor, that money will disappear. We grow it. Hispanics pick it. That’s just the way it is.”