From HighlandsToday.com, Gary Pinnell, 19 Oct 2011.
Hispanic workers flee Alabama in wake of law
SEBRING – If Florida legislators pass immigration laws like Alabama, Arizona or Georgia, farmers could have a problem.
Federal District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn refused on Sept. 28 to halt Alabama’s HB 56. The Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act authorized police to detain people who can’t produce proper documentation when stopped. Public schools must determine the legal residency of children.
Malissa Valdes, an Alabama Department of Education spokeswoman, said absences for Hispanic public students on Oct. 10 totaled 2,285 – 7 percent of the 34,670 enrolled.
Who will pick the fields and milk the cows if Florida imposes similar requirements?
“That’s the question we all had,” said Mike Waldron of Sebring, who has worked in the horticulture, lawn and garden, and animal feed sectors after returning from a recent Farm Bureau meeting.
About 80 percent of agricultural workers in Central Florida are Hispanic, he estimated. State Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, agreed.
Before farmers risk money on a blueberry or a strawberry crop, Waldron pointed out, “They have to know who’s going to pick them.”
Albritton, a former Florida Citrus Commission chair, contracts for Hispanic workers to pick the family groves. “That’s how I feed my family.”
Farmers’ pleas fell on deaf ears when they spoke to the bill’s sponsor. Alabama Sen. Scott Beason argued it would free jobs for Alabamians, a state with high unemployment.
Only immigrants are willing to do back-breaking field labor, the farmers replied.
Chad Smith said his family would normally have 12 trucks in the fields on Monday but only had three.
“The tomatoes are rotting on the vine, and there is very little we can do.” He estimated his family could lose up to $150,000 this season.
Leroy Smith, Chad’s father, challenged the senator to pick a bucket full of tomatoes and experience the labor-intensive work himself, if he was so confident immigrants could be easily replaced.
Beason declined, but promised to see what could be done to help farmers.
Leroy Smith threw down the bucket. “I figured it would be like that.”
Tomato farmer Brian Cash said the migrant workers who would normally be on Chandler Mountain have left Alabama for other states with less restrictive laws.
Last year, when Georgia passed a similar law, Florida citrus farmers in isolated pockets were finding it difficult to hire workers, said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual.
“Nothing widespread,” he said. Florida’s citrus picking season was just beginning as he was being interviewed in mid-October, and there were no signs of trouble yet.
A differing opinion came from Waldron. With the exception of cattle ranching, nearly every sector of agriculture relies on Hispanic workers, he said.
“It would have a negative impact if we started losing people,” he said. Blueberry and strawberry crops are already picked, but citrus picking season will last until next June.
“I believe it’s too early to tell with complete certainty,” Albritton said, “but within the industry, there are grumbles and rumors that help is going to be short. One grower told me this morning, and I’m not going to say who it is because I haven’t asked him if I could use his name, but he is terribly afraid that the folks he has depended on for years are not coming back, because they’re not going to drive through Alabama or Georgia.”
If Hispanics do go back to Mexico, Waldron said, farmers would have to resort to mechanized pickers or pay more for non-Hispanic workers. Even so, those aren’t viable solutions in every sector. Waldron pointed out that strawberries have to be harvested as they ripen. A mechanical picker can’t discriminate between red and green.
As for non-Hispanic workers, Waldron said he tried that in 2005. Hidden Groves Nursery needed workers to trim and load potted plant crates weighing 10 to 15 pounds on trucks bound for big-box stores.
“There weren’t any Hispanics available, for some reason, I forgot why,” Waldron said. “Maybe they were picking somewhere else. We put an ad in the newspaper for 30 people, and we said we’d pay $10 an hour.”
Some of the applicants were going to court; many were elderly. “We didn’t get people who were very desirable,” he said.
“We believe immigration is a federal issue,” Meadows said. “It can’t be solved piecemeal by the states.”
Federal judges in Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana have blocked parts of similar state laws aimed at trying to stem illegal immigration.
Albritton suggested that the alternative, eVerify, is an unreliable system.
What is needed from the federal government is a guest worker program to harvest crops and then go home, Meadows said, and repeated: “We think it’s a big mistake for state legislatures to solve this piecemeal.”
“All we’re asking is that the government doesn’t make it so difficult that the people who want to work are not excluded,” Waldron said.
State Rep. Becky Nordgren, a Republican co-sponsor of the Alabama bill, said: “This is something that my constituents have been wanting for good long time.”