News Column

Immigration Law Causing Shortage of Legal Workers, Business Owners Say

Aug. 17, 2011

Mary Sell

Alabama state flag

Martin Morales, a Dothan business owner who runs five restaurants including one in Montgomery, says Alabama's new immigration law is causing immigrants to leave the state and some business owners say this is happening even if the workers are here legally.

He said he has lost about 15 employees at his restaurants since the new immigration law was signed.

"They are gone -- they are in Louisiana now," he said.

All the workers had provided Social Security numbers when he hired them.

Jay Reed, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama, said one of his members in Mobile recently lost 14 documented workers to jobs in Florida.

"Those here legally feel that (the law) is a statement that they are not welcome here, legal or illegal," Reed said, who is also co-chair of Alabama Employers for Immigration Reform. "While the intent of the law was certainly to ensure illegal workers weren't on job sites, even legal workers are leaving the state."

Morales empathizes.

"(Lawmakers) were trying to solve one problem but created another," he said.

Another problem business owners said the law creates is that they now have been made responsible for policing the law, which is said to be the toughest in the nation.

The law requires Alabama businesses to use the national E-Verify system to check the legal status of any new employees.

Many business owners have questions about complying with the law. Nearly 200 people have signed up for an information session sponsored by ALEIR this morning in Montgomery.

Earlier this month, ALEIR had to add a second information session in Birmingham because of the number of business owners who wanted to attend. Those attending have ranged from farmers to contractors to country club and car dealership owners, said ALEIR co-chair.

The Decline

Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, who sponsored the bill that became law said that he has heard of cases of "self-deportation."

The purpose of the law, Hammon said, was to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to Alabama and to keep those already here from putting down roots.

"It seems to be working," he said Tuesday.

Previously, he's said that the cost in Alabama of educating children of illegal immigrants was about $200 million a year.

He said there will be costs to enforcing the law, but those would be outweighed by the costs of medical care, law enforcement, depressed wages, lost tax revenue and education costs caused by illegal immigration.

Hammon said he has heard from business owners and farmers who will be impacted by a lack of workers.

"I understand that they have a legitimate concern, and we need to help them any way we can to find the labor they need."

He said conversations are going on now and the state agriculture department will be involved in "recruiting legal, American workers to do the task that (farmers and business owners) need."

"The department of agriculture will be working to help the farmers of this state just as they always do."

Alabama farmers aren't the only ones with worries about their crops. Earlier this summer in Georgia, which also passed an anti-immigration law, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal started a program to offer fieldwork to probationers at minimum wage.

During the first two days of the program, the probationers picking cucumbers couldn't keep up with their Latino counterparts and had all quit by mid-afternoon.

Georgia farmers told state authorities that they had more than 11,000 unfilled agriculture jobs, although it's not clear how that compares to prior years or whether the shortage can be blamed on the new law, according to the Associated Press.

Opponents of the legislation said legal workers have left Alabama because they fear being harassed under the law that allows, among other things, police to detain suspects they have a "reasonable suspicion" of being in the country illegally. The law makes it a crime to give an illegal immigrant a ride to work and requires would-be students to show proof of citizenship when enrolling.

So Morales, who owns Los Cabos restaurant on East Boulevard, is looking for new employees -- he pays minimum wage -- and washing his own dishes and waiting tables in the meantime. He recently sold one of his Mexican restaurants.

"With all the publicity on immigration and the economy, we saw business declining," Morales said.

To him, the solution seems simple. Give immigrants an identification number, charge them a fee to work in the U.S. and tax them.

If they don't work or if they break laws, deport them, he said.

Some illegal immigrants pay thousands of dollars to "coyotes," traffickers who smuggle them across the border.

"They would gladly give that money to the government instead," Morales said.

Most illegal workers want to be legal, Morales said. That was true for him when he "ran across the border into California" in 1984. He's been a U.S. citizen for 18 years.

"I came to work in the fields," he said. He spent years picking fruit in California.

He didn't enter the country the right way, Morales admits. But there needs to be a better way for the laborers he and other business owners need to enter the country.

"You can't get a degree in tomato picking to come to the United States and work."

Business Dilemma

Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama recently updated its strategic plan for 2012 to make workforce development its No. 1 priority.

"The bill has passed, it is currently law, and now we must respond," Reed said. "And for our industry, that response is workforce development."

Alabama's unemployment rate was 9.9 percent in June, the latest month available. The average starting wage in construction is $12 an hour, Reed said. But the decline in local labor in the construction industry didn't just start.

In recent years, the industry has seen a decline in interest in the construction trades as well as a decline in scholarship applications from high school students interested in construction-related fields.

"I think the misconception was that this would allow Alabamians to go back to work," Reed said about the law. "While that was the intent, we do struggle to find a local labor pool.

"I know Alabama contractors would like nothing better than to hire Alabama workers."

Some supporters of the new law don't buy that Alabamians won't replace illegal workers.

"It has been proven in every state that passes E-Verify that illegal aliens will leave, and that's what we're seeing in Alabama," said Elois Zeanah, president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women, in an email last week. "This is good news. Lawless employers, who use illegal workers to underbid and sometimes close lawful businesses, will now have to compete fair and square; and unemployed Alabama citizens can now find employment.

"The argument that certain sectors can't find legal employees to work is a ruse."

Left To Rot

Kent Scott would disagree with Zeanah.

A few years ago, he and other farmers in Henry County began growing blueberries, an "alternative crop" not common to Alabama.

He's been successful, and Scott now has 10 acres of the little blue fruit that is both popular and labor intensive.

He pays 50 cents per pound to those willing to brave the heat and pick the berries by hand. A quick worker can make $700 a week, he said. To find those good laborers, he places ads in local newspapers and on Craigslist.

The ads are almost always answered by Hispanics.

"(Immigration law proponents) said that we are taking jobs from Americans," he said. "We are not."

If Scott can't find laborers next year, he'll buy a used mechanical harvester. That will cut into his productivity and profits -- mechanical harvesters can damage the fruit and shake loose green berries along with ripe ones. And Scott will still need workers to sort and pack the berries he sells fresh through the Wiregrass Blueberry Growers Association.

Scott's gone as far as driving around Dothan, asking locals if they want a job.

"I couldn't get a soul to come work in the (blueberry) packing shed where it was air-conditioned," Scott said.

Scott agrees with Morales when it comes to making illegal workers legal.

"Legalize it and tax it," said Scott.

Hammon said the fix to the work force shortage needs to come from Washington.

"This problem is easily solved by the federal government," he said. "If our farmers need seasonal workers to pick the crops, then our federal government should be issuing temporary work visas to fill those needs.

"Our immigration system in Washington is broken."

Scott's maternal grandparents migrated to the U.S. from Mexico. His mother grew up in Texas and served in the U.S. Army, where she met Scott's father. Scott now has a son at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

"I'm proud of my heritage," Scott said. "I just want to be able to farm and hire reliable workers at a fair wage. If I have to pay someone $20 an hour, the fruit is going to rot in the fields."

Source: Copyright (c) 2011, Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.

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