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Alabama Agriculture Advances Plan to Replace Immigrant Workers with Prisoners

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DiamondMarie1ThinkProgress has been reporting on the catastrophic economic consequences of Alabama’s harshest-in-the-nation immigration law. Undocumented workers are the backbone of Alabama’s agriculture industry, and their exodus has already created a labor shortage in the state. Farmers say crops are rotting in the field and they are in danger of losing their farms by next season.

GOP politicians have crowed that driving immigrants out of the state will reduce unemployment by letting native citizens fill those jobs. But they’ve quickly discovered that Americans are simply unwilling to do the back-breaking labor of harvesting crops.

To stave off the disastrous collapse of state agriculture, Alabama officials are seriously considering replacing immigrant workers with prison laborers who they could perhaps pay even less than immigrants. Earlier this year, the head of Alabama’s agriculture department floated this idea. Now, the department is actively promoting it to the state’s farmers:

Alabama agriculture officials are considering whether prisoners can fill a labor shortage the agency blames on the new state law against illegal immigration.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries is meeting with south Alabama farmers and businesses in Mobile on Tuesday. Deputy commissioner Brett Hall says the agenda includes a presentation on whether work-release inmates could help fill jobs once held by immigrants.

Georgia implemented a similar scheme to deal with its post-immigration-law exodus, but the program had mixed results, with many inmates walking off the job early. In fact, some in Georgia were amazed Alabama did not learn from their mistakes before implementing an immigration law that jeopardized agricultural and construction industries. “It was like, ‘Good Lord, you people can’t be helped. Have you all not been paying attention?’” said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

Replacing skilled workers with virtually free (and sometimes actually free) prison laborers has become a trend in Republican-led states. Under Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-WI) anti-collective bargaining law, at least one Wisconsin county replaced some union workers with prison labor. And Georgia is considering replacing firefighters with prisoners to save money.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on December 6, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Marie Diamond is a reporter/blogger for She hails from the great metropolis of Temple, TX. She holds a B.A. in political science from Yale and was a Yale Journalism Scholar. Before joining ThinkProgress, she worked at West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and communications firm. She has also interned for The American Prospect and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and has done development work in South Africa and Kazakhstan.

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Fear of Anti-Immigration Law Leaves Empty Classrooms, Idle Farms

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More from Alabama, where a delegation of African American labor and civil rights leaders is  investigating the state’s recently passed anti-immigrant law. Follow the delegation here.

A grade school child is there one day and gone the next. Dependable laborers don’t show up to pick crops on a farm.

“It’s incredible,” said local AFT president Vi Parramore.

I have teachers tell me that kids are disappearing overnight. Not unenrolling and leaving. Just all of a sudden gone, just gone! Crops are rotting in the fields!

Parramore shared what she knew at a roundtable at the Beloved Community United Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala. The roundtable was part of a tour by national African American labor and civil rights leaders to help shed a light on one of the harshest immigration laws in the country and how it invokes inhumanity reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. The delegation has investigated first hand the impact of Alabama’s H.B. 56 on the lives of Latino working families.

Early in the day, the group toured a trailer park. Later, they met with small business owners. Alabama’s punitive anti-immigration law has cast a chill over the state’s Latino population. According to news reports, the new law says that police must report to federal authorities anyone they detain if they have a “reasonable suspicion” the person may be in the country illegally.

The wording of the law has prompted some local governments to threaten to cut off water service to people who can’t prove legal residency and some school officials to scrutinize the legal status of children, news reports said.

At the roundtable, teachers and other spoke about how the law impacted their lives and places of work. The point was to allow national leaders to gain a better understanding of the civil rights implications of the legislation and assess the law’s impact.

Said Parramore of Jefferson County AFT:

It’s a mess, I have to tell you. It really is a mess. It’s the civil rights issue of 2011. How can you treat people like this?

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on November 16, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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