Alabama’s draconian new immigration law arose out of popular concern over the nation’s stagnantly high unemployment rate and concern over controlling immigration. But the law, which compels police officers to question individuals they suspect of being undocumented immigrants and punishes businesses that hire them, has the unintended consequence of leaving many Alabama employers with vacant job positions and no one to fill them. After the law went into effect on September 29, many employees did not report to work, and those implored to come back have expressed fear that they will be harassed by law enforcement if they do go back. This problem comes despite the fact that Alabama currently has about 211,000 unemployed people.
Alabama Governer Robert Bentley supported this law in response to concern that immigrants had stolen jobs from citizens in the wake of the recession, but it seems like his intentions were misplaced. Whereas previous generations of Americans used to take these labor intensive jobs as they began their early adult lives, young adults nowadays look elsewhere when they are first starting out. Indeed, the current perception of field work as primarily immigrant work is recent, sparked by new foreign markets for agriculture and the need to fill a demand for labor at a time when American workers were moving into desk jobs and indoor plants in manufacturing, aerospace and service industries. It was only in the 2000s, that the Hispanic immigrant labor population in Alabama grew, primarily in plant nurseries and catfish farms. Their work was encouraged until the most recent recession hit, when they were scapegoated in response to rising unemployment rates.
Tom Surtees, Alabama’s Director of Industrial Relations, defends the law, maintaining that the labor shortage about which employers are complaining is the result of an outdated business model that needs to adapt to a different set of workers, expectations, and labor standards. In the long run, this law could have the beneficial effect of forcing employers to improve working conditions, for example by changing the compensation structure from paying workers for every pound they produce to paying by the hour, which gives workers more of an incentive to stay. But farmers counter that overseas competition prevents them from being able to pay higher wages. Another positive effect could be the leverage that it gives to those workers who decided to stay in demanding better wages and working conditions. But the law is still in its infancy, so it remains to be seen how amplified these potential effects will be.