Tough new immigration law hits Alabama farmers

5:17 PM, Oct 4, 2011   |    comments
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Chad Smith, at Smith Farms in Chandler Mountain AL, 10.4.11

CHANDLER MOUNTAIN, Ala.-- Chad Smith's family grows tomatoes on a mountaintop in rural northeast Alabama, and ships them from to Canada.

The summer's crop has been good. But Smith sees thousands of overripe tomatoes rotting alongside his vines, and sees only trouble.

"As of right now, we could lose probably fifty percent of what we have left for the year," Smith said.

That, said Smith, is because of a stiff shortage of field hands, traditionally Hispanic migrant workers. And Smith doesn't sugar-coat their status.

"Farmers across the whole country and every state (rely) on illegal immigration workers to do this kind of work," Smith said, "because that's the only people that's willing to do it."

Like Georgia, this year Alabama enacted a tough new immigration law designed to squeeze out people working and living illegally in the US. By the time Smith's crop started ripening in July, he says most of his usual workers had disappeared.

RELATED: Ag. chief estimates millions in losses from immigration law

Jose Gonzalez, the foreman, says many of the workers are parents of children born in the US.  They feared detention by authorities enforcing the new law.

"There's families out here with six, seven kids. What are they going to do with them kids?" asked Gonzalez, who says he has a work permit.  "They weren't worried about themselves. It's their kids. That's the main thing that's out here."

Backers of immigration reform say businesses like Smith Farms need to adapt, perhaps by paying a higher wage to attract local workers.

Monday, an Alabama state senator who sponsored the law spoke to angry Chandler Mountain growers, telling them he wants the law enforced despite their complaints.

Chad Smith says he's tried local workers.

"It ain't about the money, it's about the work physically. If a person can't do the work, they can't do it no matter how much you pay them," Smith said.

"As of next year, if nothing changes, there won't be a tomato grown here."

Smith says he expects to make his decision about next season by January -- after he's able to evaluate this year's bottom line, and his prospects for labor next summer.

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