Immigration, Law Enforcement, Legislation, Undocumented Workers

Economists Say Alabama’s Tough New Immigration Law Could Damage State’s Economy

From, Bob Lowry, The Huntsville Times, 16 Jul 2011.

Latino workers pick crops on a farm near Huntsville. (The Huntsville Times/Michael Mercier)

Latino workers pick crops on a farm near Huntsville. (The Huntsville Times/Michael Mercier)

MONTGOMERY [AL]  — Supporters of the state’s new immigration law called it a jobs program when it was being debated in the Legislature, but some economists predict it will put the stigma of the 1960s back on Alabama.

In enacting what has been described as the nation’s toughest immigration law, some fear the Legislature’s action will backfire, possibly driving away industrial prospects as it promises to chase away thousands of Hispanics holding jobs in construction, food service, manufacturing and agriculture.

Dr. Keivan Deravi, an economics  professor at Auburn Montgomery and budget adviser to the Legislature, says the law wasn’t supported by facts and wasn’t based on “real economic theories and research.”

“It is the wrong message sent to the rest of the nation and the business world, especially considering the degree of ongoing globalization,” he said.

But Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, the Senate sponsor of the immigration bill, called that view a wish of “something bad on the state.”

“A business invests where it gets a good quality product and work force,” he said. “I don’t believe for a minute that it (immigration law) will keep them from coming here. I do not believe it hurts us on the world stage.”

Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, the House sponsor of the bill, did not return a phone call.

The law is scheduled to take effect Sept. 1, although a coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit that asserts it is unconstitutional because it interferes with federal authority over immigration matters.

Dr. Chris Westley, associate professor of economics at Jacksonville State University, said the law raises the “perception factor” about the state and that capital investment “will tend to avoid Alabama relative to other Southern states.”

“Specifically, how does it paint Alabama as a state willing, once again, to use state law to discriminate against politically unapproved groups?” he said. “The law represents movement back in a populist direction I had hoped this Legislature would avoid.”

Dr. Scott Beaulier, executive director of the Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University, predicted the law would hamper Alabama’s economy.

“Somehow it’s OK to have a double standard that embraces openness to other Americans but blocks foreigners,” he said.  “Anti-immigration laws like Alabama’s are jobs and economic growth killers. It’s a tried and failed approach that plays well politically, but is based on flawed economic logic. Immigration laws are a way to tarnish and scapegoat people who don’t look or sound like us.”

Beason called the economists’ arguments “absolutely, positively wrong.”

He said thousands and thousands of Alabamians who worked in the construction industry as framers, brick layers and tile layers have lost their jobs to illegal immigrants. Others worked in entry-level jobs in food service, lawn maintenance and landscaping, he said.

“And all of this began way before the economy began to tank,” said Beason. “Clearly these are jobs that Alabamians have historically done. I went to college with guys who put themselves through college cutting grass. Even that’s diminished.”

Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show Hispanic employment rose sharply from 1990 to 2000, and continuing climbing through 2009, although not as quickly.

Figures from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated Hispanic employment in Alabama reached 54,000 by 2009, accounting for 2.7 percent of total state employment of 1,986,034.

Among Hispanics employed in Alabama in 2009, the survey estimated that 22.9 percent worked in construction, 16.2 percent in manufacturing and production, 13 percent in grounds cleaning and maintenance and 9.4 percent in food services.

Carolyn Trent, a socioeconomic analyst for the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said the percentage of the state’s 16 and over Hispanic residents who are employed has been declining.

“The steeper decline from 2000 to 2009 undoubtedly reflects the impact of the recent recession on jobs,” she said.

Beason cited the effects of an immigration law enacted in 2008 in Oklahoma, which he said is similar to Alabama in size and makeup in the ratio between manufacturing and agriculture. He noted the unemployment rate in Oklahoma in May was 5.3 percent, compared to Alabama’s 9.6 percent.

But a strict immigration law that took effect this month in Georgia has blown up that state’s fruit and vegetable crop sector in the southern part of the state.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s program to replace migrant farm workers who are leaving the state with probationers backfired when some of the convicted criminals began walking off their jobs in south Georgia in June because the field work was too hard.

Supporters of Georgia’s new law argued legal workers would be easy to find in a state where the jobless rate is 9.8 percent. But Georgia farmers told the Associated Press most Americans want no part of picking crops because it’s hot, back-breaking work, for only $12 an hour.

The Georgia Agribusiness Council warned that farms could lose up to $1 billion if crops continued to go unpicked.

Leigha Cauthen, executive director of the Alabama Agribusiness Council, declined comment on Alabama’s new law. She referred questions to Johnny Adams, executive director of the Alabama Poultry & Egg Association, who did not return a phone call.

Don Wambles, director of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority, says he’s concerned that farmers may be forced to use the E-verify system instead of the U.S. Labor Department’s traditional H-2A program.

That program establishes a way for farmers who expect a shortage of domestic workers to bring foreign workers to the United States to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.

Wambles said producers using the E-verify system may encounter problems in rural areas where there are no high-speed Internet connections.

“We’ve got an agriculture sector that depends on migrant workers to gather our produce,” he said. “I hope a sufficient pool of migrant workers will come to Alabama as in the past.”

Wambles said the new law isn’t a “hot button” issue currently for Alabama producers.

“The (law) has not taken effect,” he said. “Producers are going about gathering this crop now and it’s not impacting them presently. Then (next growing season) they’ll start thinking about it.”

Stephen NeSmith Jr., a Montgomery immigration attorney, said the Georgia governor has learned that there are not enough workers willing to take the jobs left by immigrants.

He predicted consumers would ultimately suffer the consequences in higher food prices.

Beason conceded it would probably take a year for an adjustment in the work force, but he said he had “full faith” it would work out.

“It will be a challenge in the short term,” he said. “We’ll see who is right in a year or two. If it turns out I’m wrong, we’ll fix it.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates illegal aliens cost Alabama $112 million annually. But NeSmith said the Immigration Policy Center estimates that illegal aliens in Alabama pay more than $130 million in personal, property and sales taxes.

“So whatever economic hardship illegal aliens cause by their presence, they easily offset with the money they pay back into the system,” he said.

Source:, “Economists say Alabama’s tough new immigration law could damage state’s economy” by Bob Lowry, The Huntsville Times, 16 Jul 2011.


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