Image: tomato farmer Leroy Smith, second from left, talks with State Sen. Scott Beason
Dave Martin  /  AP
Tomato farmer Leroy Smith, second from left, talks with State Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, in Steele, Ala. Only a few of Smith's field workers showed up for work after Alabama's new immigration law took effect last week.
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updated 10/5/2011 7:07:45 PM ET 2011-10-05T23:07:45

Alabama's strict new immigration law was touted as a job creation bill, a way to force illegal workers out of jobs and open them up for legal residents. Early indications are the plan is backfiring.

The law is driving away many construction workers, roofers and field hands who do backbreaking jobs Americans generally won't. So far, few legal residents have stepped in to fill any of the vacancies, creating an absence that will surely deal a blow to the state's economy and could slow the rebuilding of Tuscaloosa and other tornado-damaged cities.

Employers believe they can carry on because of the dismal economy, but when things do turn around, they worry there won't be anyone around to hire.

Story: Hispanic students vanish from Alabama schools

Rick Pate, the owner of a commercial landscaping company in Montgomery, lost two of his most experienced workers, who were in the country legally. He spent thousands of dollars training them to install irrigation systems at places like the Hyundai plant.

"They just feel like there is a negative atmosphere for them here. They don't feel welcome. I don't begrudge them. I'd feel nervous, too," Pate said.

While it's not clear how many of an estimated 185,000 Hispanic people in the state have fled, one estimate figured as much one-fourth of the commercial building work force had left since the law was upheld last week, said Bill Caton, president of Associated General Contractors of Alabama. Commercial construction is a more than $7 billion-a-year industry in Alabama.

Legislators said the law would help legal residents suffering from nearly 10 percent unemployment.

One of the bill's authors, Republican Sen. Scott Beason, said he expected short-term problems, but he has received "thank you" calls from two people who replaced illegal immigrants who fled their jobs. Beason predicts that trickle will become a rush.

"We have the best law in the country and I stand by what we've done," Beason said.

Video: Alabama enacts strict immigration law (on this page)

Some farmers disagreed.

Financial toll will vary
On Chandler Mountain in north Alabama, tomato farmer Lana Boatwright said only eight of the 48 Hispanic workers she needed for harvest showed up after the law took effect. Those who did were frightened.

"My husband and I take them to the grocery store at night and shop for them because they are afraid they will be arrested," she said.

Farmer Chad Smith said his family farm stands to lose up to $150,000 because there are not enough workers to pick tomatoes spoiling in the fields.

"We will be lucky to be in business next year," he said.

The financial toll will vary by area, and experts said it's too early to make predictions.

The law allows police to detain people indefinitely if they are suspected of being in the country illegally and requires schools to check the status of new students when they enroll. Those elements make it perhaps the toughest law in nation.

The law targets employers by forbidding drivers from stopping along a road to hire temporary workers. It also bars businesses from taking tax deductions for wages paid to illegal workers and makes it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit work. A federal judge has temporarily blocked those sections of the law so she can study them more.

Cristian Gonzalez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, is a stay-at-home mother of four who lives in a mobile home in suburban Birmingham with her husband. They sneaked across the border in 2009 and planned to save money and eventually return to their home country.

"We're afraid to go to Walmart. I'm afraid to walk the kids up there to get the bus. I am afraid to drive," Gonzalez said.

Her husband worked as a brick mason and cook, but was recently unemployed. Now they have decided they probably will return to Mexico.

"We're just trying to be here one more year, but with this law ..." she said, her voice trailing off as she shook her head.

Video: Judge upholds Alabama's tough immigration law (on this page)

In Tuscaloosa, there is still a lot of rebuilding to be done after Alabama's killer tornadoes in April. Without the Hispanic workers to help out, it will take even longer for neighborhoods to be fixed up. Blake Corder, the president of the Home Builders Association of Tuscaloosa, noted that the workers had left the area and he even lost a few renters in the past week.

Exodus from schools
Likewise, schools are worried about their students who have suddenly stopped showing up for class. Out of 34,000 Hispanic students, 2,285 were absent Monday. That number increased from Friday by a few hundred.

The figures show seven out of every 100 Hispanic children were out of school, even though state school officials have tried to assure parents that they won't release their names to police and that no child will be denied an education due to legal status.

At Gonzalez' mobile home community, driveways were full of cars and trucks at midday Tuesday, a time when most residents used to be at work. A resident who didn't want to be identified out of fear of the law said people are afraid to venture out during daylight.

"People are just not going to work. They don't want to be arrested," the woman said.

Story: Ala. police to enforce America's 'strongest' immigration law

Builders have complained they can't find replacement workers and delays in projects are expected. Once the economy picks up and construction returns to normal, the impact will increase, said Russell Davis, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Alabama.

"There is going to be a void. No question," Davis said.

___

Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., and Dave Martin in Steele, Ala., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Alabama enacts strict immigration law

  1. Closed captioning of: Alabama enacts strict immigration law

    >>> alabama now has the strictest immigration law in the country. two upheld bay federal judge . i'm joined by maria kumar, msnbc contributor. good morning.

    >> good morning. thanks for having me on.

    >> what's this mean? what's this new law mean?

    >> it is actually -- "new york times" called at this time cruelest immigration law across the country meaning it is incredibly strict. one is if you are a student you have to actually show your immigration papers. number two, you have to -- if unfortunately -- walking around and you have to have -- immigration papers at all times, one thing people don't realize is that the 50 million latinos, 60% of them are u.s. born. how are they going to get federal immigration painers to demonstrate they truly are american citizens? part of the problem, too, is, unfortunately, it creates really -- actually has a huge backlash against labor and big business and also a lot of different parts of alabama that are -- are there trying to rebuild after the hurricane because they have a labor shortage that people are literally fleeing just out of fear being racially profile.

    >> yeah. alabama republicans, though, argue their goal has always been to make sure alabama jobs and taxpayer funded resources are going to legal alabama residents.

    >> and one, it should. it also -- because it is suching a strict law, law enforcement themselves were against this legislation. clergy was against this legislation. agriculture businesses were against the legislation. because you can't -- you don't know just by looking at someone whether they are or not. it shows to the administration they need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level . and congress has to sit down and roll up their sleeves because otherwise the economies are going to be devastated and families will be separated but more importantly, we are going to actually create a police state that alabama has been trying to shy away from for the history of the civil rights movement . almost as if they haven't learned anything. learned their lesson. hypocrisy with republicans. they say they don't believe in government regulation but here they are trying to decide who should be work and who the big business should be hiring.

    >> maria, thanks so much.

    >> thank you.

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