The Alabama immigration law, HB56, which has led to a flood of Hispanics, both documented and undocumented, leaving the state, offers a test case on whether Americans will take the kind of jobs traditionally given to immigrants. The unemployment rate in Alabama is 9.9%. There are plenty of unemployed workers available to take jobs doing things like working fields on Alabama farms. Theoretically, this should lead to a dramatic decline in the unemployment rate, with documented workers picking up the slack.
But it hasn’t worked out that way.
Potato farmer Keith Smith saw most of his immigrant workers leave after Alabama’s tough immigration law took effect, so he hired Americans. It hasn’t worked out: Most show up late, work slower than seasoned farm hands and are ready to call it a day after lunch or by midafternoon. Some quit after a single day.
In Alabama and other parts of the country, farmers must look beyond the nation’s borders for labor because many Americans simply don’t want the backbreaking, low-paying jobs immigrants are willing to take. Politicians who support the law say over time more unemployed Americans will fill these jobs. They insist it’s too early to consider the law a failure, yet numbers from the governor’s office show only nominal interest.
“I’ve had people calling me wanting to work,” Smith said. “I haven’t turned any of them down, but they’re not any good. It’s hard work, they just don’t work like the Hispanics with experience.”
I would put the emphasis on low-paying. Maybe it’s not that Americans don’t want to do the jobs undocumented workers do, but that they don’t want to do them at the rate of pay being offered. Undocumented workers don’t have the rights of domestic workers, or the ability to complain about maltreatment. If a living wage were offered, you might see more people put up with the hard manual labor.
That’s a more legitimate claim than this sort of moral argument about Americans not being hardworking enough. At $2 for every 25-pound box of tomatoes, for example, it’s nearly impossible to make a living wage. Yes, the work is hard, but it’s the lack of reward I would focus on.
And let’s be clear: at the heart of this is not some concern for following the law, but pure and simple xenophobia. This story about Steve Dubrinsky, a deli owner in Birmingham whose legal Latino restaurant workers told him that they would leave the state is instructive.
Dubrinksy was so concerned about his burgeoning staff problem that he spoke to the Birmingham News about it last week.
“They are scared and I can’t blame them,” he told the paper, speaking about his documented employees. “It is affecting a lot of restaurants. It’s a mess.”
Suddenly, Dubrinsky had much greater problems.
The morning the article ran, Dubrinsky hopped in his car and turned on local talk radio, only to discover that the discussion topic was Dubrinsky himself. The host and his guests were trying to decide whether or not they should boycott the deli.
Dubrinsky grabbed his paper and read the Birmingham News article just to make sure he hadn’t been misquoted, perhaps voicing support for undocumented immigrants. Indeed, he was quoted accurately, showing sympathy for the area’s properly documented workers.
It hardly mattered. Dubrinsky was being tarred as an illegal-immigrant lover.
“People twisted what the story said,” Dubrinsky told HuffPost. “I was under attack.”
Of course he was. Because he committed the cardinal sin of showing a hint of sympathy for brown people. In his case, legal brown people. So the talk about the rule of law is touching, really, but also irrelevant.