More often than not, when you drive into Alabama, at the state line, you will see this sign: “Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful.”
I think it is a most appropriate sign because this state, which I called home for nearly 25 years, truly is beautiful on so many different levels. But Alabama, having progressed under a shadow of a tawdry past of racial discrimination and oppression, seems almost tone deaf yet again.
I am speaking of what has become a mass exodus of Hispanic immigrant farm workers, no doubt some of them illegals, as a result of the recently passed Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.
Critics say the law is the harshest example of a new breed of state-sanctioned discrimination that has been passed into law by state legislatures. Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed H.B. 56 on June 9, 2011.
When the U.S. Justice Department challenged the constitutionality of the Alabama law, U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn on Sept. 28 affirmed many of its provisions, including making it a crime to be undocumented in the state.
She also permitted implementation of the provision requiring all schools to check the immigration status of their students and to report that information to the state. The judge apparently saw no issue with forcing public school officials to become defacto immigration enforcement officers.
Predictably, a climate of fear ensued. Many migrant farm workers simply packed up their families and left. And to that extent, the law accomplished what was intended – marginalizing an unwanted population, not unsimilar to segregationist policies
50 years earlier.
Families with Hispanic surnames are afraid their water and utilities will be shut off unless they can prove their immigration status. Police roadblocks are springing up near Latino-frequented places of worship. And tellingly, the first person picked up as a result of the new law was a legal immigrant, illustrating the potential for the new law to be used to terrorize anyone who looks foreign. They are now under suspicion, required to carry their papers at all times or risk being detained by the police
As U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first black federal judge, put it, in Alabama, “the Hispanic man is the new Negro … It’s a sad thing to say.”
Now the way I see it, a couple of guiding principles are at work here, causing great consternation in a place that I grew to love. One is that labor often follows markets and conversely business often follows labor.
A second guiding principle is the law of unintended consequences. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes elected officials, who have no more capacity to lead than walk a dog, pass laws not knowing or understanding the full ramifications involved.
As a site selection consultant, I am very cognizant that businesses more often than not will seek certain kinds of people with certain skill sets to man their operations. That only makes sense because of the large investment typically involved in the human element.
The farming community in Alabama is no different. It is an existing industry that has for many years depended upon migrant Hispanic labor to do the work. Having done it for generations, they know how to do this very tough laborious work in a most efficient manner.
But now they’re mostly gone, with crops rotting in the fields.
Cullman sweet potato farmer Keith Smith told the Associated Press said he has not had trouble finding people who want to do the work. Rather, his problem is finding people who can do the work.
“Most American workers aren’t in good enough shape. They can’t do this work. You get two, three or four hours out of them, and they’re gone. They say they can’t do this no more,” Smith said.
Smith, who freely admits that he has used illegal immigrants to pick sweet potatoes, said most of his crop is still in the field after his workers moved away.
Relatively high unemployment rates — about 9 percent in the U.S. and 9.9 in Alabama — are not likely to push Americans toward farm work, said Demetrios Papademetriou, president and co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute. He suggested the problem may be more deeply rooted.
“This is a sector and an industry … that a long time ago, going back to the 1940s and probably before that was abandoned,” Papademetriou said. “It was abandoned to foreign workers.”
Wayne Smith, who grows about 75 acres of tomatoes in the northeast part of Alabama, said he has never been able to keep a staff of American workers in his 25 years of farming.
“People in Alabama are not going to do this,” said Smith, “They’d work one day and then just wouldn’t show up again.”
A crew of four experienced Hispanic farm workers can earn about $150 each by picking 250-300 boxes of tomatoes in a day, said Jerry Spencer, of Grow Alabama, which purchases and sells locally owned produce. A crew of 25 (inexperienced) Americans recently picked 200 boxes — giving them each $24 for the day.
A 2010 report from the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that illegal immigrants made up 5.1 percent of Alabama’s work force.
As would be expected, criticism from the business community has rained down on Alabama legislators and Gov. Bentley. Corporate chicken-processing firms, the lifeblood of many small towns where Hispanic families have long lived in harmony with local residents, may close or cut production after losing a huge portion of their labor force. In urban centers like Birmingham, building contractors say their industry is stalling without immigrant workers, whatever their legal status.
Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature debated and narrowly rejected its own tougher immigration law.
The bill died in part because state Sen. J.D. Alexander, a citrus grower, had a change of heart. In a floor speech, he described meeting with hundreds of farm workers protesting at the Capitol.
“It’s easy to talk about — you know, down at the post office, at the bar — you know, we ought to do this thing,” Alexander said. “But when you start looking in people’s eyes and understand they are people who live and breathe just like us — I think you
all need to think about it very carefully.”
Alabamians still literally cringe when they see old news reel footage of police dogs and fire hoses from 50 years ago. They know that what was inflicted upon black and white citizens during the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s, with discriminatory policies and laws sanctioned by state and local government, was downright criminal, morally wrong.
But reason ultimately prevailed and Alabama entered into a national mainstream that celebrated diversity. In doing so, it became a more business friendly and cosmopolitan place. Mercedes-Benz came in the 1990s, followed by Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and a host of other big names from around the world. (Notice those companies are foreign.)
Largely because it was able to bridge the racial gulf between its black and white citizens, Alabama became a better place to live and do business. And for the record, let me say that I truly believe there are other places in this country that harbor far more racist sentiments than Alabama does today. And, yes, some of those places are in the North.
We are products of our past. Whether we like it or not, we are shaped and linked by our history. Our views on race, religion, and politics are all shaped by who were are and where we’ve been through together. We are supposed to learn from history.
I only hope that Alabama will revisit what it has done. While every nation has the right to protect and police its borders, the idea of a police state targeting certain peoples does not foster a business friendly environment.
Having said that, I would have no compunction as a site selection consultant to take a project to Alabama if the fit were right. But if I my corporate client had qualms about tolerance and acceptance there, I might have my work cut out for me.
It shouldn’t be that way. Alabama is a better place than that. It can and should be “Alabama the Beautiful.”
Need a partner in results-oriented site selection? Contact me, Dean Barber, at 972-890-3733 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Barber Business Advisors, LLC is a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Plano, Texas. Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com