Alabama, U.S., Addicted to Cheap Labor

Editor’s Note: I have been particularly peeved about Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law, but have stalled in writing about it because there are so many angles to take. Ultimately, what bothers me most is that Alabamans and Americans, in general, want it both ways: cheap and convenient goods but no more immigrants in this country, at least not brown people who don’t speak English. I realize that certain parts of the Alabama law have been struck down, but the parts I am writing about today still stand. Enjoy! -Elisa

Alabama has a long and nasty history of using slave labor and then crying “no fair!” when the rules that benefit white residents are changed.

This has been the case when it became one of the last states of the confederacy to abolish slavery in 1865. It was also the last state, in 1927, to stop the practice of leasing out African American prison labor who, “were arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations.” This history can be found at Wikipedia.

Once again, Alabama has become the laughingstock of the nation and the world for its attempt to re-institute slavery, this time with Latino labor.

After passing the most anti-immigrant law on the books, calling for local law enforcement “to detain any alien whose lawful immigration status cannot be verified,” the state has found itself with a shortage of labor on farms. From Alabama.com:

For farmer Keith Smith, who has 200 acres of ripening sweet potatoes in his Cullman fields and no one to pick them, the new law boils down to a matter of finding anyone to do the work.

Smith normally hires about 20 pickers — mostly Hispanic immigrants — for the October harvest. On Thursday he could find only five workers.

According to that same article, an estimated 95,000 unauthorized immigrants worked in Alabama in 2009 and 2010, making up about 4.2 percent of the labor force. Even legal Hispanic workers are not showing up to the fields for fear of hostility created by the law. Good job, Alabama.


To remedy the situation, Alabama’s agriculture commissioner, John McMillan, is suggesting that farmers hire prison inmates. Who are these inmates? The same undocumented immigrants who were already working for next to nothing?

Alabama wants its cake and to eat it, too.

And the farm sector is not the only one hurting in the state. Housing contractors, who have spoken out against the law, can depend on less workers and less clients to buy homes. Poultry and other manufacturing processing plants are losing their labor as well. Families are losing their house cleaners, nannies, landscapers and other contractors. An observer summed it up beautifully here:

(Judge) Blackburn maintained the clause preventing courts from enforcing contracts with an illegal immigrant; this clause will continue to perpetuate stagnation in the state’s economy. In order to hire a contractor to fix your roof, you will need to ensure the contractor is a citizen or has the appropriate visa. If the contractor were an illegal immigrant, homeowners would have no recourse for breach of contract. On the brink of a potential double-dip recession, why is Alabama’s Legislature limiting small business contracting?

Therein lies the problem. Americans, not just Alabamans, have an addiction we are loath to admit: exploited, cheap labor. From the people who make our clothes in dingy basements here or overseas to the folks who harvest our food or provide us with cheap and timely services here at home, we depend on undocumented labor more than we’d like to admit. But rather than fess up, we have decided to scapegoat the immigrants themselves.

It’s a nasty part of our history we can’t seem to shake off.

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