THE LAST SATURDAY of September—game day in Alabama, the Crimson Tide and Tigers both at home—Birmingham seemed to have all but emptied out, fans having bolted west to the big one in Tuscaloosa, or south for the rout in Auburn. I was heading north to the farmland of Cullman County. The vista along I-65 still showed scars from tornadoes—some half a mile wide—that ripped through Alabama in April, part of a storm that carved a path all the way to the Carolinas. You could still see their mark in buzz-cut swaths of hillsides, in piles of pine and scrub oak smeared together on a bluff. Along the shoulder, a few of the slender, towering high-mast poles that light the interstate at night had been snapped in half. One even made for curious disaster art, bent and curved and twisted like a giant Calder sculpture.
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Founded by a utopian German émigré who imagined it as “the garden spot of America,” Cullman itself is a sundown town with storybook touches: early 20th-century storefronts, the yawp and clatter of a train and boxcars plodding through downtown. On the outskirts, I drove past piles of rock and rubble that flanked incomprehensibly lucky houses the storm had left untouched. Blue tarps covered the rooftops where branches had punched through and now flapped in the breeze like a school-play rendering of the sea.
Not too far outside Cullman, in an area known as Gold Ridge, I found Keith Smith’s farm, a compound of chicken coops and warehouses at the end of a descending gravel drive, with fields rolling beyond. The chicken houses were open, empty and quiet. A tractor crept across one field, and I could see a row of baseball caps and pale straw hats bobbing above the frame of a seed setter being towed behind it.
Smith pulled up in a burly white pickup, trailed by a couple of collies, one with only one back leg, still hobbling at a pretty good clip. Smith’s size befits his truck, and as he got out and led me to his office, he moved slowly, with great effort, heeding a pain in his ankles. In addition to sweet potatoes, Smith grows greens and raises pullets for Tyson. He was one of the first farmers in Alabama to complain publicly about the impact of the state’s divisive anti-immigration bill, HB 56—a brave move, since doing so made him a potential target of the law, which criminalizes aiding or abetting undocumented immigrants in any way. Signed by Gov. Robert Bentley in June, the law had been temporarily stayed after several groups—the ACLU, the Department of Justice, civil rights groups, and the leaders of four faiths—sued to stop it, forcing US District Judge Sharon Blackburn to consider its constitutionality. The dozen workers Smith had in the field that day were planting collard seeds and were about half the number he’d need to harvest the sweet-potato crop. He worried that most would be gone by the following week, when the law went into effect. “If I lose this crop,” he said, “I’m out. I’ll just have to do something else.” Did he have a plan? “They ain’t no plan,” he said, tugging at his T-shirt. “If Blackburn rules in favor of the state and all the help leaves, then that’s pretty much it. I’ll try and find people. But I’m fighting a losing battle.”
“The way this bill is now,” farmer Keith Smith said, “if they’re out here run over by an automobile layin’ in a ditch, and you help ’em, you’re breakin’ the law. It’s just not right.”
Less than a week later, Blackburn’s ruling would allow many of the law’s most extreme provisions to stand, triggering an exodus of Latinos that left fields abandoned just as the autumn harvest began. (Among those who fled: all the workers in Smith’s field that game day.) Sitting in his John Deere-themed office—with hot sauce on his desk and a pocketknife sculpture as big as a hair dryer on the windowsill—Smith was blunt about the circumstances. “Majority of people that works for me,” he said, “the kind of jobs I got, they’re illegal. There ain’t no use in beating around the bush saying they ain’t or whatnot. That’s just the way it is.” Fake papers, no papers, tax-filing ambiguities, whatever. “I’ve worried about all this stuff for years,” he said, “and I just got to where I throwed my hands up and said, ‘To hell with it. I’ll just work ’em, pay ’em, and forget about it.'”
Smith’s problem, which he spelled out in a deep, marbled drawl, is textbook by now: There simply aren’t enough people in the United States legally who are willing or able or geographically situated to do the backbreaking work most farms have to offer, a truth that has become increasingly clear as farmers—first in Georgia, where legislation similar to HB 56 passed last year, and now in Alabama—have scrambled to fill the vacuum left by a labor force that evaporated overnight. Agriculture is a grueling, $5 billion industry in Alabama: $3.4 billion comes from poultry; the rest is from farms and nurseries that produce everything from cattle to cotton, peanuts to azaleas. One of every five jobs in Alabama is connected to agriculture. Most are paid as piecework—75 cents a bucket of potatoes, say, or a couple bucks per thousand chickens—and most of that piecework is mercilessly physical. Poultry catchers are expected to gather some 2,000 birds in an hour, while for pickers it’s a matter of packing, say, 300 25-pound crates between sunrise and sunset. For the farmer, it’s a necessity to keep skilled, reliable workers close at hand when profits are made or lost in the brief window of the harvest. This pressure bears down on the men and women willing to stoop and kneel and pick and haul and bleed in order to perform grueling tasks with awesome efficiency—and then, for many, to move on to where the seasons lead them next. And while anti-immigration arguments hang on the idea that if illegal workers were barred from these jobs Americans would eagerly fill them, Smith and other farmers say this doesn’t square with reality. Cullman County is 93 percent white. Of the locals Smith has hired to replace the workers who fled, most lasted only a couple of hours he says, before they quit.
Sandra and David Bagwell’s chicken-catching crew at their farm in Cullman, Alabama.
None of the farmers he knew were in favor of HB 56 as it stands, though “all of us would like to see an immigration law we can deal with.” He mentioned guest-worker programs, background checks, tracking numbers—the same strategies that some state Republican legislators have recommended. But the argument over immigration has long been one of reform versus enforcement, and in the case of HB 56, enforcement is emphasized to the extreme. “The way this bill is now,” Smith said, “if you have anything to do with them whatsoever, you’re breaking the law. If you see ’em and they’re hungry, or if they’re out here run over by an automobile layin’ in a ditch, and you help ’em, you’re breakin’ the law.” He swung to smash a fly on his desk and missed. “It’s just not right.”
IT COMES OFF as exaggeration, but the scenarios Smith described fall within the purview of HB 56. The most draconian yet in a series of nativist laws taking root across the country, HB 56, like Arizona’s SB 1070 before it, criminalizes being in the United States without proper documentation—which under federal law isn’t a crime but a civil violation and cause for deportation. Both laws instruct law enforcement to act upon “reasonable suspicion” during routine traffic stops and arrests to determine whether to detain someone until his residency status can be confirmed through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Both laws penalize anyone who knowingly employs, harbors, or transports (including giving a coworker a ride) undocumented immigrants, though Alabama’s law goes further in that it penalizes anyone who rents to them. It prevents undocumented immigrants from receiving state or local public services (interpreted by some officials to include running water). It bans them from enrolling in public colleges, from seeking or soliciting work, and requires all businesses and agencies—from poultry plants to laundromats, from the governor’s office to the sanitation department—to use the E-Verify system, a federal database used to determine the legal status of new hires. (Update: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments from both sides on March 1.)
The bill’s sponsor described it as being modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, but stressed that it had an “Alabama flavor” in that it “attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life.”
One of the law’s more incendiary measures requires the Alabama Department of Education to “accurately measure and assess the population of students who are aliens not lawfully present in the United States”—a provision that flirts with undermining the Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which guarantees education to all students regardless of their immigration status. The measure was simply “part of the cost factor,” state Sen. Scott Beason, cosponsor of HB 56, told the Montgomery Advertiser, stressing that public education for undocumented children “is one of our largest costs.” Meanwhile, teachers and school administrators worried that as they became unwitting—and unwilling—enforcers of immigration law, undocumented students would be intimidated into dropping out.
Their fears were prescient. The Monday after Blackburn’s ruling, which allowed the education provision to stand, more than 2,200 Latino students failed to show up for school statewide, double the average absentee rate. Sonia Smith, a school nurse at Tarrant Elementary, just north of Birmingham, fielded dozens of calls from parents offering excuses—panic attacks and fights over whether, and with whom, they should leave their American-born children should they be deported. Anne Pace, who teaches ESL at Tarrant, described some of her students arriving to class in tears; one started to hyperventilate, and the older kids seemed depressed and reticent, plagued by the idea that failure to produce the right paperwork would result in their parents’ disappearance. “It’s been very serious for them,” Pace told me. “They’re afraid for their parents. It’s the unknown that scares them.”
ALABAMA ISN’T exactly a logical front in the war on illegal immigration. It isn’t a border state. Of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, only 120,000 live in Alabama, and those people account for just 2.5 percent of Alabama’s population. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only a third of the state’s 34,000 Latino children are undocumented—less than one-half of 1 percent of all of Alabama’s students, according to the Census Bureau.
But the state’s undocumented population is estimated to have doubled since 2005, prompting the law’s proponents to use language that suggests an infestation. The measure’s sponsors, state Sen. Beason and state Rep. Micky Hammon, promoted the bill with campaign season hyperbole, calling out to the counties “most heavily hit” by illegal immigration, as if by some natural disaster. Hammon described it as being modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, but stressed that it had an “Alabama flavor” in that it “attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life.” At a Republican Party breakfast prior to the bill’s passage, Beason warned: “If you allow illegal immigration to continue in your area, you will destroy yourself eventually. If you don’t believe illegal immigration will destroy a community, go and check out parts of Alabama around Arab and Albertville.” (The mayors of both towns, both Republicans, bristled at the claim that their towns were going to hell.) Before returning to his seat, Beason called on his fellow Republicans to “empty the clip, and do what has to be done.”
As HB 56 was moving through the Legislature, Hammon made remarkable claims, telling the Anniston Star that illegal immigrants cost Alabama between $600 and $800 million annually in “a lot of things,” including unemployment benefits for pushed-aside legal residents, health care costs, education, and lost tax revenue. When the Star fact-checked his figures, it discovered that he’d simply extrapolated from a much-criticized Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) study that claimed illegal immigration cost Arizona $2.6 billion. The study’s own estimate of Alabama’s burden was only $298 million. Beason, meanwhile, cast HB 56’s purpose as “putting Alabamians back to work,” promising it would be “the biggest jobs program for Alabamians that has ever been passed.”