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Anti-illegal immigration bill stokes backlash in Alabama fields

Farmers in states like Alabama that have passed strong anti-illegal immigration laws are fighting back, saying they are losing labor and that US workers are unwilling to take up farm work.

Brent Martin prepares tomato fields to be plowed under in Steele, Ala., Thursday. Migrant workers fled the area because of the stiff new Alabama immigration law, leaving many farmers without enough help to harvest their crops.

Dave Martin/AP

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Farmers fearing a labor shortage are protesting recent immigration laws they say are too harsh, forcing undocumented workers to flee to prevent deportation. They say US workers are unwilling to endure the rigorous conditions of farm work and that state legislators need to come up with solutions to prevent local agribusiness from going under.

More than 100 farmers and three state representatives in Alabama responded to the recent enactment of a slate of anti-illegal immigration laws by holding a public hearing this week in Oneonta, about 35 miles northeast of Birmingham. The farmers complained that they were already seeing laborers pack up and leave the state.

The new immigration laws will result in a $40 million hit to the state’s economy, with 10,000 illegal workers, each making about $5,000 a year, set to leave, according to a report released this week by the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

Farmers are routinely the first to criticize immigration-reform efforts that target illegal workers, says Leo Chavez, a labor and immigration expert at the University of California, Irvine.

“If you get tough on undocumented immigrants, they lose their main labor force,” Mr. Chavez says.

There are already signs of an exodus in Alabama. The majority of school districts say that they’ve experienced a sharp drop in attendance of Hispanic students, a trend that prompted at least one superintendent to record a plea to parents that is airing continuously on a local Spanish-language television station.

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