Discuss as:

Immigrant workers, farmers fearful in wake of Alabama immigration law

By Kate Snow
Rock Center correspondent

Jerry Danford drives me out back in his white pickup truck to see his 100 acres of cucumber fields. I’m sweating. It’s at least 80 degrees in the shade on this September day, which Danford tells me is pretty standard for southeastern Alabama this time of year. He’s been working in agriculture for nearly 50 years now.

As we park and walk toward the fields, Danford talks about how many workers he needs to harvest all the cucumbers. Danford supplies a lot of the major pickle brand names you’d recognize. All those acres represent $20 million in retail pickle sales. 

“Americans lose sight about how we get our pickles in a pickle jar in a grocery story. We forget that this is where it comes from,” Danford says as we walk down a long row of tidy green plants.

“People are not informed about what it takes to do these special crops. Now a lot of people aren’t interested. The lawmakers that passed this law, they didn't come out here and interview people. If they had done their homework, they would have realized,” he says.

Danford is referring to the Republican lawmakers in Alabama who’ve passed the most severe immigration law in the United States. He’s angry at those Republicans for what he sees as a political move that has deeply affected his life on the farm.

Since the bill was signed into law this summer, Danford has watched many of the immigrant workers he relied on leave. He worries that none of them will return for the spring harvest, when a provision requiring that employers check the immigration status of workers will be in effect.

“I would like for these lawmakers to go out and get me a pool of labor,” he says.

And here’s what makes his story particularly interesting: He voted for those lawmakers.

Danford is a lifelong Republican. He admits he did once vote for a Democrat for governor. But in every other race, at every level, he’s always been for the GOP. When I ask if he’s ever voted a Democrat into the White House he scoffs, making a face that says “you have to be kidding.”

He voted for Alabama’s current governor, Robert Bentley, a Republican.  But he now says he regrets that decision.

“It was an honest mistake,” Danford says, “but, you know, I feel bad over it.”

Up in the state Capitol building, I sat down with Gov. Bentley. It was his first national television interview on this subject.

“I did think that if we signed this bill then we would certainly have to defend the bill. And that's what we're having to do,” he says.

Bentley says he doesn’t want to become the face of an anti-immigrant movement, but by signing this legislation he acknowledges that he put himself at the center of a national storm.

The U.S. Justice Department, under President Obama, has sued Alabama, arguing that enforcing immigration policy is the job of the federal government, not the states.

Bentley says Alabama is just enforcing laws that the federal government has not. But Alabama’s law has gone further in criminalizing certain acts.

“You're not supposed to be here without documentation. You're not supposed to be in the United States,” Bentley argues. “And so that's all we want to do is to make sure that the people that are here, that are working here, do so legally.”

“I'm not going to back down from the fact that we need immigration reform in this country,” Bentley says. “Let me tell you, if the federal government would do their job, that's all we ask. If the federal government would do their job, we wouldn't, states wouldn't have to do this. It would not be necessary for Alabama or Georgia or Utah or South Carolina or Arizona or any of these other states to pass immigration bills if the federal government would do their job.”

One of Bentley’s primary arguments in favor of the law is that it will help put a dent in Alabama’s unemployment rate, which is quite high at almost 10 percent. Yes, undocumented farm workers will leave the state, he says.  But unemployed legal residents will replace them on farms like Jerry Danford’s.

“If they are using illegal workers right now, will it hurt them? Possibly,” Bentley says. “Especially this first year or maybe the second year. But eventually, it will not hurt them, because we will get back to doing things the right way.”

To ease the adjustment, Bentley has set up a statewide employment hotline for farmers looking for agriculture workers. 

As of this week, the website advertises five employers offering a total of 59 openings; 378 Alabamians had signed up on the site indicating their interest in a temporary job. But a spokesperson for the state office running the program says no one has yet been hired using the website.

On several visits to Alabama, we did find some native Alabamians willing to work in the fields. 

We met Jess Montez Durr, who was picking tomatoes on the Jenkins tomato farm on Chandler Mountain in northern Alabama.

Durr said he’d stick with this as long as he could, but he preferred his previous job as a dishwasher at Applebee’s. 

“The work was a whole lot more easier than this,” he said.

Since our visit, he and the other American workers have quit.

And that’s why farmers like Jerry Danford say the governor’s notion of “adjustment” will never work.

“The people that you could get locally, they wouldn't -- regardless of what you offered them, within reason -- they wouldn't put in the long hours. It'd take probably three (of them) to do what two of the immigrant workers do,” he says.

“They'd want to be on break all the time, going to the bathroom, going to get a drink, or, you know, something. They just don't have the initiative to work, just plain and simple,” Danford says.

He says he bases this opinion on decades of experience with local workers who show up for a day and then quit, if they apply at all.

Since Danford doesn’t think a pool of labor, apart from immigrant workers, exists, he says he won’t be able to plant so much produce anymore.

But what if he paid a higher hourly wage?  The going rate now is $10 an hour.

“The [pickle] company wouldn’t buy it from you then,” he says.  They’d turn to suppliers in other states where labor is cheaper -- states that allow undocumented immigrants to continue working under the radar. 

Across Alabama we heard the same thing, from watermelon growers in the south to tomato farmers up north.

A crew boss of a mostly undocumented Mexican crew, Servando Popoca, says he won’t bring his men to Alabama anymore.

“They're gonna get deported,” Popoca says.  “And I will not risk my crew or myself.”

So what will a farmer like Jerry Danford do?

He’s considering planting a wider range of crops and perhaps more row crops, which can be harvested using automated equipment, rather than people. 

Millions of dollars are on the line, not just for the farmers but for everyone in the supply chain. When Danford planted watermelons last year, he estimates he paid a trucking company close to $10 million to transport them.  

A new forecast from the University of Alabama estimates the law will cost the state economy at least $40 million in lost revenue overall.

For Jerry Danford, it’s a sad time.

He tells me he loves his life on the farm: “Being out in the open. Being out looking, watching nature.”

But he’s not sure how many more generations will be able to make a living this way in Alabama.

Editor's note: Kate Snow's full broadcast report, "Help (not) Wanted", airs Monday, Nov. 14, at 10pm/9c on Rock Center.