Alabama's Immigration Debate: Agriculture Industry

With the state’s unemployment rate at just under 10 percent, supporters of Alabama's new immigration law say they want to put as many Alabamians to work as possible. A local farmer who does hire local help in addition to migrant workers says their work ethic doesn’t compare.

“They work. They just work. They want a better way of life. They don’t mind working,” said Jerry Danford.

He plants 2,500 acres of cucumbers every year on his farm in Grangerburg. Danford uses a leasing company to hire a crew of migrant workers to grade the cucumbers. He needs fifty, but with Alabama’s new immigration law, only about 15 took the job, and he says locals just don’t cut it.

“Right now we had a small crop in the fall, and we have picked up a lot of locals. They’ll come today and won’t come tomorrow. Won’t work on weekends. You can forget that,” he said.

Stories like his are being told all across the state as crops rot in the fields. Leaders say they expected a shortage in workers as illegal immigrants fled the state, but they didn’t anticipate legal immigrants leaving with them.

John McMillan, Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries said, “We felt like we were going to have some residual labor here to at least be an asset in helping us here through this situation.”

McMillan said there is a bright side. It’s putting pressure on the federal government to address the illegal immigration issue.

“If enough states do this it does tend to probably put pressure on whoever the next president is. It’s just common sense that we can have 50 different sets of laws and rules and regulations dealing with this issue and it’s you know a national issue,” he said.

Many state lawmakers say they are open to adding modifications to the law in the next session. Many are suggesting a temporary worker program. In the meantime, McMillan said farmers will have to adjust.

“Right now we’re going to have to assume that we’re going to have to live with this law. They’re going to figure out ways to harvest differently or go back to old ways where they are in businesses that don’t require labor,” says McMillan.

Danford has already made changes, like not planting a watermelon crop this year because he couldn't get the labor to harvest.
He says he's not worried about himself. It's newcomers to the game who will suffer most.

“I’m 70 years old. My wife and I are going to survive. It’s these gentlemen that have devoted 20-25 years that does a good job and earns a good living, if this business goes down they’re going to have to look elsewhere,” says Danford.

Alabama has launched a way to fill the job void for farmers. The new program is called "Work Alabama" and focuses on matching temporary jobs with people looking for temporary work

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