Alabama’s HB 56 Contributes to Climate of Fear

When Alabama passed its anti-immigrant law in 2011, it was promoted as a jobs bill.

The law, HB 56, includes a provision requiring employers to verify the immigration status of all new hires through E-Verify, a federal database. HB 56 would not only rid the state of undocumented immigrants through its harsh penalties, supporters said, but the jobs they leave behind would become available for unemployed Alabamians.

But that’s not what happened.

Many Latinos – regardless of their immigration status – apparently did choose to flee the state rather than face the racial profiling and harassment promoted by HB 56.

The lines of Alabamians wanting their jobs, however, failed to appear.

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan described the results faced by employers: “We have seen the enormous difficulties farmers, especially those in produce and poultry, have encountered as a result of the new immigration law. The economic hardship to farmers and agribusinesses will reverberate throughout Alabama’s economy.”

Some poultry companies operating in Alabama – Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride and Alatrade Foods – assert that they used E-Verify prior to the state mandate. And though the law applies only to new hires, many employers have dismissed employees without verifying their immigration status at all or after verifying the status of current employees, which E-Verify does not permit.

“We had to replace about 130 employees [out of 900] at our Albertville plant,” said Frank Singleton, a spokesman for Wayne Farms. He added: “We can’t say for sure that was because of the Alabama law, but the inference certainly was there that we can assume the people left because of their concern about the law. It definitely had a chilling effect on the migrant community.”

A Climate of Fear

Workers of all races, languages, and immigration statuses who participated in this survey described dangerous conditions in these processing plants. These conditions only worsened after HB 56 raised the threat of retaliation and deportation, they say.

Poultry workers say HB 56 has left processing plants understaffed as some companies choose to leave many positions unfilled. They say companies have used the new law to intimidate the remaining undocumented employees into working under even more dangerous conditions.

Francisco,* a 50-year-old Latino poultry worker in North Alabama, has seen a dramatic change since the law took effect. He said his employer has hired very few workers to replace those who fled.

Instead, HB 56 has forced each worker to process more chickens than before. The plant has even increased its line speed in the deboning area, despite the number of workers there dropping from about 42 workers per line to about 32. The few new hires are thrown into their jobs without training – a decision that makes their dangerous jobs even riskier, he said.

Francisco believes the company knows that many of its workers are undocumented and is exploiting their fear of HB 56 for profit. The company has threatened mass firings if workers cannot keep up with the faster pace, he said.

The climate of fear also has been fed by a September 2011 incident that occurred shortly after HB 56 took effect. That’s when eight workers were arrested as they left the plant early one morning. The workers were deported even though they hadn’t committed any crimes and were longtime employees with children in Alabama.

The arrests reinforced a powerful fear held by Latino workers — that they can disappear at any time. And as long as a poultry company can profit from that fear, there’s little reason for Francisco to believe his employer will do anything to dispel it.

False Promises, Real Hardship

Because so few locals were interested in taking the jobs vacated by immigrants after the passage of HB 56, some Alabama poultry plants have resorted to recruiting refugees and other out-of-state workers to fill jobs.

To a group of workers in Puerto Rico, it sounded like a good opportunity.

Workers were promised $10.50 an hour – or even more – for hanging live chickens on a processing line.

The workers were hired, but they had to pay their own way to Alabama. Once they arrived, they discovered they had been lured to the mainland with false promises. Instead of hanging live chickens for $10.50 an hour, they were tasked with deboning chickens for $8.90 an hour. Their pay shrank even more as deductions were taken for company housing, temporary use of furniture and other fees.

Gabriela, Ivan, Rodrigo and Jessica* were among these workers. They, like other Latino workers, said they faced discrimination at the plant. They were required to perform more work than their non-Latino co-workers, harassed and insulted with comments such as “andale, andale” – apparently a mocking reference to Looney Tunes character Speedy Gonzales. Some workers even had feathers and bloody chicken parts thrown at them while working.

Their complaints were met with the same excuse: “If you don’t like it here, you can go back to Puerto Rico.”

The workers felt trapped.

Jessica attempted to make the best out of a bad situation. But things went from bad to worse. She was sexually harassed at work. It continued even after she rejected her harasser’s advances. Jessica was trapped in an unfamiliar region where she didn’t speak the language.

“I couldn’t leave because I had nowhere else to go,” she said.

Ultimately, Jessica and her three co-workers were fired. They were never told why. And they never had an opportunity to defend their rights. A subcontractor even cut off the electricity and heat to their company housing. They were forced to leave.

The message was clear: The company had gotten what work it could get out of them. Now it was finished with them.

Some Alabama companies sought out political refugees to fill vacant jobs in the wake of HB 56.

“The demand is still there,” Albert Mbanfu, refugee employment director for Lutheran Services of Georgia, told Bloomberg Businessweek in October 2012. “Even now, if I called [Wayne Farms], they would say, ‘Send all of them.’”

But refugees and others unfamiliar with rural Alabama are often vulnerable to exploitation. The promises companies make to these potential workers are too often false. The work conditions are almost always grueling and harsh. And once these companies are finished with these workers, they throw them away – even if it means shutting off the power and heat to someone’s company housing.

Center for American Progress Immigration Team, “Not-So-Sweet Home Alabama: What Alabamians Are Saying about Their State’s New Immigration Law,” Center for American Progress (Nov. 21, 2011), http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/10/alabama_law_quotes.html.

Jonathan Stinson, Poultry Companies Already Using E-Verify, The Sand Mountain Reporter (April 7, 2010).

Daniel Trotta and Tom Bassing, In Alabama, Strict Immigration Law Sows Discord, Reuters (May 2012), http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/30/us-usa-immigration-alabama-idU....

Margaret Newkirk and Gigi Douban, In Alabama, Legal Immigrants Wanted for Dirty Jobs, Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct. 4, 2012, available at http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-10-04/in-alabama-legal-immigrants-wanted-for-dirty-jobs.