Andrew Lichtenstein  /  For Bloomberg Businessweek
Only a skeleton crew was available recently to harvest tomatoes at Ellen Jenkins' farm near Birmingham, Ala.,  where many fruits rotted in the field.
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updated 11/11/2011 10:14:36 AM ET 2011-11-11T15:14:36

Skinning, gutting, and cutting up catfish is not easy or pleasant work. No one knows this better than Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select, which has a processing plant in impoverished Uniontown, Ala. For years, Rhodes has had trouble finding Americans willing to grab a knife and stand 10 or more hours a day in a cold, wet room for minimum wage and skimpy benefits.

Most of his employees are Guatemalan. Or they were, until Alabama enacted an immigration law in September that requires police to question people they suspect might be in the U.S. illegally and punish businesses that hire them. The law, known as HB56, is intended to scare off undocumented workers, and in that regard it’s been a success. It’s also driven away legal immigrants who feared being harassed.

Rhodes arrived at work on Sept. 29, the day the law went into effect, to discover many of his employees missing. Panicked, he drove an hour and a half north to Tuscaloosa, where many of the immigrants who worked for him lived. Rhodes, who doesn’t speak Spanish, struggled to get across how much he needed them. He urged his workers to come back. Only a handful did. “We couldn’t explain to them that some of the things they were scared of weren’t going to happen,” Rhodes says. “I wanted them to see that I was their friend, and that we were trying to do the right thing.”

His ex-employees joined an exodus of thousands of immigrant field hands, hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, chicken plant employees, and construction workers who have fled Alabama for other states. Like Rhodes, many employers who lost workers followed federal requirements—some even used the E-Verify system—and only found out their workers were illegal when they disappeared.

In their wake are thousands of vacant positions and hundreds of angry business owners staring at unpicked tomatoes, uncleaned fish, and unmade beds. “Somebody has to figure this out. The immigrants aren’t coming back to Alabama—they’re gone,” Rhodes says. “I have 158 jobs, and I need to give them to somebody.”

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There’s no shortage of people he could give those jobs to. In Alabama, some 211,000 people are out of work. In rural Perry County, where Harvest Select is located, the unemployment rate is 18.2 percent, twice the national average. One of the big selling points of the immigration law was that it would free up jobs that Republican Governor Robert Bentley said immigrants had stolen from recession-battered Americans. Yet native Alabamians have not come running to fill these newly liberated positions. Many employers think the law is ludicrous and fought to stop it. Immigrants aren’t stealing anything from anyone, they say. Businesses turned to foreign labor only because they couldn’t find enough Americans to take the work they were offering.

At a moment when the country is relentless focused on unemployment, there are still jobs that often go unfilled. These are difficult, dirty, exhausting jobs that, for previous generations, were the first rickety step on the ladder to prosperity. They still are—just not for Americans.

For decades many of Alabama’s industries have benefited from a compliant foreign workforce and a state government that largely looked the other way on wages, working conditions, and immigration status. With so many foreign workers now effectively banished from the work pool and jobs sitting empty, businesses must contend with American workers who have higher expectations for themselves and their employers—even in a terrible economy where work is hard to find. “I don’t consider this a labor shortage,” says Tom Surtees, Alabama’s director of industrial relations, himself the possessor of a job few would want: calming business owners who have seen their employees vanish. “We’re transitioning from a business model. Whether an employer in agriculture used migrant workers, or whether it’s another industry that used illegal immigrants, they had a business model and that business model is going to have to change.”

On a sunny October afternoon, Juan Castro leans over the back of a pickup truck parked in the middle of a field at Ellen Jenkins’s farm in northern Alabama. He sorts tomatoes rapidly into buckets by color and ripeness. Behind him his crew—his father, his cousin, and some friends—move expertly through the rows of plants that stretch out for acres in all directions, barely looking up as they pull the last tomatoes of the season off the tangled vines and place them in baskets. Since heading into the fields at 7 a.m., they haven’t stopped for more than the few seconds it takes to swig some water. They’ll work until 6 p.m., earning $2 for each 25-pound basket they fill. The men figure they’ll take home around $60 apiece.

Castro, 34, says he crossed the border on foot illegally 19 years ago and has three American-born children. He describes the mood in the fields since the law passed as tense and fearful. Gesturing around him, Castro says that not long ago the fields were filled with Hispanic laborers. Now he and his crew are the only ones left. “Many of our friends left us or got deported,” he says. “The only reason that we can stand it is for our children.”

He wipes sweat from beneath his fluorescent orange baseball cap, given to him by a timber company in Mississippi, where he works part of the year cutting pine. Castro says picking tomatoes in the Alabama heat isn’t easy, but he counts himself lucky. He has never passed out on the job, as many others have, though he does have a chronic pinched nerve in his neck from bending over for hours on end. The experiment taking place in Alabama makes no sense to him. Why try to make Americans do this work when they clearly don’t want it? “They come one day, and don’t show up the next,” Castro says.

It’s a common complaint in this part of Alabama. A few miles down the road, Chad Smith and a few other farmers sit on chairs outside J&J Farms, venting about their changed fortunes. Smith, 22, says his 85 acres of tomatoes are only partly picked because 30 of the 35 migrant workers who had been with him for years left when the law went into effect. The state’s efforts to help him and other farmers attract Americans are a joke, as far as he is concerned. “Oh, I tried to hire them,” Smith says. “I put a radio ad out—out of Birmingham. About 15 to 20 people showed up, and most of them quit. They couldn’t work fast enough to make the money they thought they could make, so they just quit.”

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Joey Bearden, who owns a 30-acre farm nearby, waits for his turn to speak. “The governor stepped in and started this bill because he wants to put people back to work—they’re not coming!” says Bearden. “I’ve been farming 25 years, and I can count on my hand the number of Americans that stuck.”

It’s a hard-to-resist syllogism: Dirty jobs are available; Americans won’t fill them; thus, Americans are too soft for dirty jobs. Why else would so many unemployed people turn down the opportunity to work during a recession? Of course, there’s an equally compelling obverse. Why should farmers and plant owners expect people to take a back-breaking seasonal job with low pay and no benefits just because they happen to be offering it? If no one wants an available job—especially in extreme times—maybe the fault doesn’t rest entirely with the people turning it down. Maybe the market is inefficient.

Tom Surtees is tired of hearing employers grouse about their lazy countrymen. “Don’t tell me an Alabamian can’t work out in the field picking produce because it’s hot and labor intensive,” he says. “Go into a steel mill. Go into a foundry. Go into numerous other occupations and tell them Alabamians don’t like this work because it’s hot and it requires manual labor.” The difference being, jobs in Alabama’s foundries and steel mills pay better wages—with benefits. “If you’re trying to justify paying someone below whatever an appropriate wage level is so you can bring your product, I don’t think that’s a valid argument,” Surtees says.

In the weeks since the immigration law took hold, several hundred Americans have answered farmers’ ads for tomato pickers. A field over from where Juan Castro and his friends muse about the sorry state of the U.S. workforce, 34-year-old Jesse Durr stands among the vines. An aspiring rapper from inner-city Birmingham, he wears big jeans and a do-rag to shield his head from the sun. He had lost his job prepping food at Applebee’s, and after spending a few months looking for work a friend told him about a Facebook posting for farm labor.

The money isn’t good—$2 per basket, plus $600 to clear the three acres when the vines were picked clean—but he figures it’s better than sitting around. Plus, the transportation is free, provided by Jerry Spencer, who runs a community-supported agriculture program in Birmingham. That helps, because the farm is an hour north of Birmingham and the gas money adds up.

Durr thinks of himself as fit—he’s all chiseled muscle—but he is surprised at how hard the work is. “Not everyone is used to this. I ain’t used to it,” he says while taking a break in front of his truck. “But I’m getting used to it.”

Yet after three weeks in the fields, he is frustrated. His crew of seven has dropped down to two. “A lot of people look at this as slave work. I say, you do what you have to do,” Durr says. “My mission is to finish these acres. As long as I’m here, I’m striving for something.” In a neighboring field, Cedric Rayford is working a row. The 28-year-old came up with two friends from Gadsden, Ala., after hearing on the radio that farmers were hiring. The work is halfway complete when one member of their crew decides to quit. Rayford and crewmate Marvin Turner try to persuade their friend to stay and finish the job. Otherwise, no one will get paid. Turner even offers $20 out of his own pocket as a sweetener to no effect. “When a man’s mind is made up, there’s about nothing you can do,” he says.

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The men lean against the car, smoking cigarettes and trying to figure out how to finish the job before day’s end. “They gotta come up with a better pay system,” says Rayford. “This ain’t no easy work. If you need somebody to do this type of work, you gotta be payin’. If they was paying by the hour, motherf—–s would work overtime, so you’d know what you’re working for.” He starts to pace around the car. “I could just work at (MCD)McDonald’s,” he says.

Turner, who usually works as a landscaper, agrees the pay is too low. At $75 in gas for the three days, he figures he won’t even break even. The men finish their cigarettes. Turner glances up the hill at Castro’s work crew. “Look,” he says. “You got immigrants doing more than what blacks or whites will. Look at them, they just work and work all day. They don’t look at it like it’s a hard job. They don’t take breaks!”

The notion of jobs in fields and food plants as “immigrant work” is relatively new. As late as the 1940s, most farm labor in Alabama and elsewhere was done by Americans. During World War II the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to import temporary workers to ease labor shortages. Four and a half million Mexican guest workers crossed the border. At first most went to farms and orchards in California; by the program’s completion in 1964 they were working in almost every state. Many braceros—the term translates to “strong-arm,” as in someone who works with his arms—were granted green cards, became permanent residents, and continued to work in agriculture. Native-born Americans never returned to the fields. “Agricultural labor is basically 100 percent an immigrant job category,” says Princeton University sociologist Doug Massey, who studies population migration. “Once an occupational category becomes dominated by immigrants, it becomes very difficult to erase the stigma.”

Massey says Americans didn’t turn away from the work merely because it was hard or because of the pay but because they had come to think of it as beneath them. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the job itself,” he says. In other countries, citizens refuse to take jobs that Americans compete for. In Europe, Massey says, “auto manufacturing is an immigrant job category. Whereas in the States, it’s a native category.”

In Alabama, the transition to immigrant labor happened slowly. Although migrant workers have picked fruit and processed food in Alabama for four decades, in 1990 only 1.1 percent of the state’s total population was foreign-born. That year the U.S. Census put the combined Latin American and North American foreign-born population at 8,072 people. By 2000 there were 75,830 Hispanics recorded on the Census; by 2010 that number had more than doubled, and Hispanics are now nearly 4 percent of the population.

That first rush of Hispanic immigrants was initiated by the state’s $2.4 billion poultry and egg industry. Alabama’s largest agricultural export commodity went through a major expansion in the mid-’90s, thanks in part to new markets in the former Soviet Union. Companies such as Tyson Foods found the state’s climate, plentiful water supply, light regulation and anti-union policies to be ideal. At the time, better-educated American workers in cities such as Decatur and Athens were either moving into the state’s burgeoning aerospace and service industries or following the trend of leaving Alabama and heading north or west, where they found office jobs or work in manufacturing with set hours, higher pay, and safer conditions—things most Americans take for granted. In just over a decade, school districts in once-white towns such as Albertville, in the northeastern corner of the state, became 34 percent Hispanic. By the 2000s, Hispanic immigrants had moved across the state, following the construction boom in the cities, in the growing plant nurseries in the south, and on the catfish farms west of Montgomery. It wasn’t until anti-immigration sentiment spread across the country, as the recession took hold and didn’t let go, that the Republican legislators who run Alabama began to regard the immigrants they once courted as the enemy.

A large white banner hangs on the chain-link fence outside the Harvest Select plant: “Now Hiring: Filleters/Trimmers. Stop Here To Apply.” Randy Rhodes unfurled it the day after the law took effect. “We’re getting applications, but you have to weed through those three and four times,” says Amy Hart, the company’s human resources manager. A job fair she held attracted 50 people, and Hart offered positions to 13 of them. Two failed the drug test. One applicant asked her out on a date during the interview. “People reapply who have been terminated for stealing, for fighting, for drugs,” she says. “Nope, not that desperate yet!”

Rhodes says he understands why Americans aren’t jumping at the chance to slice up catfish for minimum wage. He just doesn’t know what he can do about it. “I’m sorry, but I can’t pay those kids $13 an hour,” he says. Although the Uniontown plant, which processes about 850,000 pounds of fish a week, is the largest in Alabama and sells to big supermarket chains including (DEG)Food Lion, Harris Teeter, and (WMT)Sam’s Club, Rhodes says overseas competitors, which pay employees even lower wages, are squeezing the industry.

When the immigration law passed in late September, John McMillan’s phone lines were deluged. People wanted McMillan, the state’s agriculture commissioner, to tell them whether they’d be in business next year. “Like, what are we going to do? Do we need to be ordering strawberry plants for next season? Do we need to be ordering fertilizer?” McMillan recalls. “And of course, we don’t have the answers, either.”

His buddy Tom Surtees, the industrial relations director, faces the same problem on a larger scale. Where McMillan only has to worry about agriculture, other industries, from construction to hospitality, are reporting worker shortages. His ultimate responsibility is to generate the results that Governor Bentley has claimed the legislation will produce—lots of jobs for Alabamians. That means he cannot allow for the possibility that the law will fail.

“If those Alabamians on unemployment continue to not apply for jobs in construction and poultry, then [Republican politicians] are going to have to help us continue to find immigrant workers,” says Jay Reed, who heads the Alabama Associated Builders & Contractors. “And those immigrant workers are gone.”

Business owners are furious not only that they have lost so many workers but that everyone in the state seemed to see it coming except Bentley, who failed to heed warnings from leaders in neighboring Georgia who said they had experienced a similar flight of immigrants after passing their own immigration law. Bentley declined to be interviewed for this story.

McMillan and Surtees spend their days playing matchmaker with anxious employers, urging them to post job openings on the state’s employment website so they can hook up with unemployed Alabamians. McMillan is asking Baptist ministers to tell their flocks that jobs are available. He wants businesses to rethink the way they run their operations to make them more attractive. On a road trip through the state, he met an apple farmer who told him he had started paying workers by the hour instead of by how much they picked. The apples get bruised and damaged when people are picking for speed. “Our farmers are very innovative and are used to dealing with challenges,” McMillan says. “You know, they can come up with all kinds of things. Something I’ve thought about is, maybe we should go to four-hour shifts instead of eight-hour shifts. Or maybe two six-hour shifts.”

McMillan acknowledges that even if some of these efforts are successful, they are unlikely to fill the labor void left by the immigrants’ disappearance. Some growers, he says, might have to go back to traditional mechanized row crops such as corn and soybeans. The smaller farmers might have to decrease volumes to the point where they are no longer commercially viable. “I don’t know,” says McMillan. “I just don’t know, but we’ve got to try to think of everything we possibly can.”

Since late September, McMillan’s staff has been attending meetings with farmers throughout the state. They are supposed to be Q&A sessions about how to comply with the new law. Some have devolved into shouting matches about how much they hate the statute. A few weeks ago, Smith, the tomato farmer whose workers fled Alabama, confronted state Senator Scott Beason, the Republican who introduced the immigration law. Beason had come out to talk to farmers, and Smith shoved an empty tomato bucket into his chest. “You pick!” he told him. “He didn’t even put his hands on the bucket,” Smith recalls. “He didn’t even try.” Says Beason: “My picking tomatoes would not change or prove anything.”

While the politicians and business owners argue, others see opportunity. Michael Maldonado, 19, wakes up at 4:30 each morning in a trailer in Tuscaloosa, about an hour from Harvest Select, where he works as a fish processor. Maldonado, who grew up in an earthen-floor shack in Guatemala, says he likes working at the plant. “One hundred dollars here is 700 quetzals,” he says. “The managers say I am a good worker.” After three years, though, the long hours and scant pay are starting to wear on him. With the business in desperate need of every available hand, it’s not a bad time to test just how much the bosses value his labor. Next week he plans to ask his supervisor for a raise. “I will say to them, ‘If you pay me a little more—just a little more—I will stay working here,’ ” he says. “Otherwise, I will leave. I will go to work in another state.”

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