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Alabama Looks to Revive the Kind of Extreme Anti-Immigrant Policies That Left Crops Rotting in the Fields

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The Alabama legislature is advancing Texas-style legislation that threatens communities by empowering local law enforcement to arrest and detain anyone they suspect to be an undocumented immigrant. Civil rights advocates in the state have called H.B. 376 “inhumane” and “unnecessary,” and warned that it’s “putting Alabama communities at greater risk of racial profiling.” 

You’d think Alabama lawmakers would already know the consequences of anti-immigrant legislation. It’s already played out there following the passage of extreme legislation back in 2011. Just look at some of the headlines from the time: “Alabama immigration: crops rot as workers vanish to avoid crackdown,” The Guardian reported. “Alabama farmers losing immigrant labor, see produce rotting in the fields,” the Huntsville Times reported. “Dumb Alabama Immigration Law Working So Well Its Crops Are Rotting,” Wonkette more colorfully said. Since Alabama lawmakers are refusing to revisit their past, we’ll do it for them.

H.B. 56, which legislators passed under the guise of a “jobs bill,” was widely considered to be the harshest anti-immigrant law in the nation, going even further than its inspiration, Arizona’s notorious S.B. 1070. “HB 56 criminalized nearly every aspect of an undocumented immigrant’s life,” BuzzFeed reported in 2012. “It made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to work or to seek work, required police to arrest anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, made it illegal to rent an apartment to an undocumented immigrant, and so forth.” 

Truly ugly stuff. Fearing arrest and separation, many of the state’s immigrant workers fled in droves. Others protested, marching in the streets and wearing t-shirts with the slogans, “We love Alabama. We are Alabama,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said in 2021.

Now, Alabama lawmakers may not have cared that they were driving out their workforce, but farmers in the state sure did. One of the worst-kept secrets in the nation is that the agricultural industry relies on the labor of undocumented workers, including in Alabama. Without these essential workers, fields go unattended, and crops rot. That’s exactly what happened, as the headlines described. 

“Members of the Alabama state legislature who supported and passed H.B. 56 pegged it as a jobs bill, claiming it would open up jobs for Americans,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in 2011. Well, lawmakers waited for those U.S.-born workers to show up. They waited. And waited. And waited. They didn’t show. Those who did quickly gave up. U.S.-born workers “ain’t durable enough, because they’re not used to doing that kind of stuff,” farmer Keith Smith told PBS News. “They come out and work two to three hours and: Whew. I have had it. I can’t take this anymore.”

One Alabama lawmaker inadvertently proved his exact point. Chad Smith, a member of a tomato farming family in the state, told the Huntsville Times that his crops were “rotting on the vine, and there is very little we can do.” Many workers the family depended on were scared and didn’t show up. He estimated that his family would lose as much as $150,000 due to the effects of H.B. 56. When then-State Senator Scott Beason met with the family and other concerned farmers, Smith’s dad challenged the GOP lawmaker to pick a bucket of tomatoes.

He wasn’t asking for a lot – just one bucket. Beason declined, the Huntsville Times reported. Smith’s dad “threw down the bucket he offered Beason and said, ‘There, I figured it would be like that.”

Other businesses were hurt, too. “‘Here, it’s like a ghost town for Hispanics,’ said Rafael Leon, owner of Accessories La Alianza, near Albertville,” Bloomberg reported in 2012. “Leon sat waiting for customers to walk in and buy prepaid mobile phones and sparkly butterfly hair clips, skin creams and key chains. Rows of glass cases were empty. He said the store was busy before the law.” One year after the bill’s implementation, Alabama had the worst economy of any state in the south, with a University of Alabama economist estimating that HB 56 could cost the state up to $11 billion in a single year.

In one infamous incident, “cops in Alabama stopped a Mercedes Benz executive driving a rental car and were forced, under the new law’s provisions, to arrest him when he couldn’t produce acceptable ID,” BuzzFeed noted. “The executive was driving near Tuscaloosa, where Mercedes Benz has a manufacturing plant — Alabama, like many Southern states, has bent over backward in recent decades to attract foreign automakers by giving them generous tax breaks and other incentives.”

So you can imagine that lawmakers must’ve been privately thrilled when the courts blocked key provisions of the law, which then died a quiet death after the state agreed to a settlement. Lessons learned? Not really, apparently. State Republicans appear motivated by conspiratorial “invasion” rhetoric regularly spewed by members of their party. 

“We are at a point in this country where we are being invaded,” GOP state Rep. Tracy Estes falsely said. This is absurd. Children and families seeking asylum are not an invasion, and the fact of the matter is that when Republicans invoke this kind of rhetoric, they’re using the same racist fiction cited by the mass killers who targeted El Paso, Buffalo, and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

H.B. 376 is “bad lawmaking at the expense of immigrant families and Alabamians as a whole,” Allison Hamilton, Interim Executive Director at Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, wrote in an op-ed.

“Many of us know people who are undocumented – this proposed law will essentially make them fearful of ever working with law enforcement. It will drive away the very people that have helped our state grow and flourish. Our immigrant community members and our coalition are here to stay. We are part of Alabama. And we won’t let lawmakers like Representative Yarbrough drive us into the shadows.”

Maybe those Republicans are secretly hoping that the courts block them again, ignoring the harm they are inflicting on the state and many of its residents. Then, they could have their anti-immigrant stunt but not do the damage they did before. But, with today’s courts, that seems like a risky bet. They may just find out – like their neighbors in Florida.


Related: Joey Kennedy: On Alabama’s Lousy Anti-Immigrant Law, the State Still Isn’t Ready to Yell Uncle

Nativist Politics from GOP Presidential Candidates Are Bad for the Economics of Iowa Families

Texas Republicans Should Be Glad Courts Blocked Their Anti-Immigrant Bill. Just Look At the Effects of DeSantis’ Extreme Legislation in Florida