MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama’s strict new immigration law may be backfiring. Intended to force illegal workers out of jobs, it is also driving away many construction workers, roofers and field hands in the country legally who do backbreaking jobs that Americans generally won’t.
The vacancies have created a void that will surely deal a blow to the state’s economy and could slow the rebuilding of Tuscaloosa and other tornado-damaged cities.
Employers believe they can carry on because of the dismal economy, but when things do turn around, they worry there won’t be anyone around to hire. Many legal Hispanic workers are fleeing the state because their family and friends don’t have the proper papers and they fear they will be jailed.
Rick Pate, the owner of a commercial landscaping company in Montgomery, lost two of his most experienced workers, who were in the country legally. He spent thousands of dollars training them to install irrigation systems at places like the Hyundai plant.
“They just feel like there is a negative atmosphere for them here. They don’t feel welcome. I don’t begrudge them. I’d feel nervous, too,” Pate said.
While it’s not clear how many of an estimated 185,000 Hispanic people in the state have fled, one estimate figured as much one-fourth of the commercial building workforce had left since the law was upheld last week, said Bill Caton, president of Associated General Contractors of Alabama.
Commercial construction is a more than $7 billion-a-year industry in Alabama.
Legislators said the law would help legal residents suffering from nearly 10 percent unemployment.
One of the bill’s authors, Republican Sen. Scott Beason, said he expected short-term problems, but he has received “thank you” calls from two people who replaced illegal immigrants who fled their jobs. Beason predicts that trickle will become a rush.
“We have the best law in the country and I stand by what we’ve done,” Beason said.
Some farmers disagreed.
On Chandler Mountain in north Alabama, tomato farmer Lana Boatwright said only eight of the 48 Hispanic workers she needed for harvest showed up after the law took effect. Those who did were frightened.
“My husband and I take them to the grocery store at night and shop for them because they are afraid they will be arrested,” she said.
Farmer Chad Smith said his family farm stands to lose up to $150,000 because there are not enough workers to pick tomatoes spoiling in the fields.
“We will be lucky to be in business next year,” he said.
The financial toll will vary by area, and experts said it’s too early to make predictions.