Call it the law of unintended consequences.
A year ago, when Republican state Senator Scott Beason of Alabama spoke about HB 56, a law he sponsored to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state, he said the result would be that jobs would open up for “thousands of native Alabamians.”
Instead, according to Bloomberg News, employers in Alabama industries that depended largely on an immigrant labor force found themselves struggling with a shortage of workers, and have turned to refugees and Puerto Ricans in other states to fill the void.
The report says that employers have imported hundreds of refugee and Puerto Rican workers after having tried to hire local residents, who either did not pass background screening or quit not long after starting. Refugees are lawfully present in the United States and, as such, are authorized to work here. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Frank Singleton, a spokesman for Wayne Farms, which operates poultry plants in Alabama, as well as other states, said in the Bloomberg report that the law spurred many of its legal Latino employees to leave their jobs and the area because they either felt the state was hostile, or because they had family members who were undocumented.
Singleton said in the story that the company has spent $5 million to replace and train new workers.
According to Bloomberg, “Wayne Farms found Eritreans, displaced by war and conflict, and other Africans through East Coast Labor Solutions LLC, a Fairlea, West Virginia-based labor broker. East Coast has about 200 workers in Alabama, owner Ray Wiley said in an interview.”
Scott Beason, the Republican state senator who sponsored the bill, expressed support for legal immigrants, but told reporters that he was less than enthusiastic about Alabama jobs going to non-residents of the state.
“We would prefer they hire native Alabamians,” he said, according to Bloomberg. He speculated that refugees were getting the jobs because “they’re cheaper,” the news organization reported.
But Albert Mbanfu of Lutheran Services of Georgia, which helps refugees find jobs, said that the salaries for the workers he has sent from Georgia to various plants in Alabama vary between $9 to $12 an hour, and employees also get full benefits that cover dental, medical and vision.
“We tell refugees who have been here longer than three years, and who know their way around, about these opportunities, and they make up their minds if these are jobs they want to do, and states where they want to live,” said Mbanfu. “We go first to the plant to make sure the working conditions are good before we send people there. We want to make sure they’ll be treated well.”
“You have to be on your feet for eight hours, in a cold environment,” he said. “They have to keep the plant cold because you’re dealing with fresh chickens. Workers wear coats and other winter clothes.”
Several of the state’s jobs, including those at poultry plants, agriculture, drywalling, and domestic work, among others, have employed many workers who were undocumented – many came from Mexico. But after Alabama joined several other states, including Arizona, in passing tough immigration laws aimed at making life so difficult for such immigrants that they would leave – and others would be deterred from settling there – many undocumented people left the state.
Many legal immigrants also left, for a variety of reasons – some were the spouses or children of undocumented immigrants, and some felt that the state had become inhospitable to Latinos in general, regardless of their legal status.
Alabama House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, Republican, said in a statement last year that the anti-illegal immigration measure, which he sponsored, “remains the toughest [immigration law] in the country, and that is a fact that should make all law-abiding citizens of our state proud.”
Local reports had quoted Hammon as saying during a legislative debate about the measure that it would attack “every aspect of an illegal alien’s life,” and “make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves.”
Alabama was one of several states that passed immigration laws in the last two years on the contention that the federal government has been derelict in its responsibility to control the borders and enforce laws that punish, and by extension would cut down on, illegal immigration.
Aside from requiring all employers to register with a federal citizenship-verification system called E-Verify, the Alabama law barred residents from conducting basic business transactions if they lacked citizenship papers and required schools to check the citizenship status of new students.
Federal courts have blocked parts of the law in response to lawsuits by the Obama administration and civil rights groups.
Meanwhile, last week the Mexican government said it is reviewing a labor union's complaint that Alabama's crackdown on undocumented immigrants violates an international trade agreement.
The Service Employees International Union and a Mexican attorneys group filed a complaint in April. They contend Alabama's law targeting undocumented immigrants violates protections guaranteed to migrant workers under a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
The Mexican government says it has asked the United States to begin talks allowed under the agreement.
Neither Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley nor Attorney General Luther Strange had an immediate response.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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