Given the current anti-immigrant climate in the U.S., it comes as no surprise that an Alabama federal judge upheld many provisions of that state’s new immigration legislation, which takes Arizona’s SB 1070 and raises it a few rights-limiting provisions. And while much of the abhorrent legislation was allowed to stand, it is hard to tell for now whether the judge’s reservation of judgment on numerous provisions—and reservation of implementation in the interim—is a good or bad sign for immigrants. What does seem clear, though, is that on the state and federal level alike, there is confusion not about the state of the economy (after all, who could be confused about that?), but about what immigrants’ contribution has been, is, and should be. A close look reveals that Alabama’s economy depends on the work of immigrants, and that the state’s new legislation will have high dollar costs to the state as well as high human costs to the immigrant population.
There appears to be general consensus that the U.S. needs to shift its economic focus in order to try to regain the economic might of a bygone era—in other words, skilled is the name of the game. But Alabama’s approach has looked backward instead of forward, cutting off immigrants’ access to many educational opportunities, effectively blocking the growth of a skilled workforce, and arguably placing a huge roadblock in the road to economic recovery and growth.
In addition to shutting its growing immigrant population out of the skilled workforce, Alabama’s legislation would also try to eliminate their crucial—and perpetually thankless—work in other fields. For example, another part of the law whose implementation is delayed would make it a crime for undocumented persons to seek employment in the state. The pro/con comparison around this part of the law has a close parallel in the ongoing discussion around the “Legal Workforce Act,” which mandates the use of E-Verify—an electronic program for checking employees’ work authorization. While Democratic opposition to E-Verify is not surprising, given the program’s clear anti-immigrant motivation and costs as measured in human rights terms, the proposed federal legislation is actually subject to bipartisan opposition as vocal Republicans highlight E-Verify’s high economic costs. In particular, E-Verify costs money to implement by taking money directly out of the pockets of businesses, large and small alike, during these tough times…but E-Verify also costs businesses, and particularly the food industry, money because it can cost them their labor force.
Alabama, however, doesn’t seem to realize that anti-immigrant legislation actually has both a high human and economic price tag. In 2000, agribusiness accounted for over 20% of jobs in Alabama, and poultry production, in particular, is one of Alabama’s biggest businesses—it is the third-largest poultry producer in the country. Estimates show that around a quarter of the workforce in the poultry industry nationwide is undocumented, many of them women who work for low wages in deplorable circumstances and dangerous conditions. So in addition to losing the cultural richness brought by its relatively new immigrant population, Alabama stands to lose the competitive edge that it built on the backs of its hard-working immigrants, who are unsurprisingly also accused of stealing jobs from real Alabamians.
While Arizona may have stolen the show at first, Alabama will finally have its time in the limelight…because it is on the cutting-edge of anti-immigrant legislation. This dubious honor means that Alabama’s immigrant population, should it choose to stay put, will suffer, living in fear and poverty, adding a new underclass to the state’s long-racialized social hierarchy and, in so doing, hurting the whole state. And if the immigrants choose to leave, Alabama will be hurting just the same, as the drivers of the state’s economic lifeblood take their hard work elsewhere.
For more information about these and many other issues affecting immigrant women in the U.S., please take advantage of the information and resources provided by the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights (NCIWR) at http://nciwr.wordpress.com/.