Friday, October 21, 2011




Back in the early 2000s, with the debate already heating up over how much of the unemployment problem in California and the nation was caused by illegal immigrant workers and their willingness to be exploited by skinflint employers, Dianne Feinstein tried an experiment.

The veteran Democratic U.S. senator arranged for every office of the state Employment Development Department to list menial, farm-related jobs like strawberry picking that were actually available at the time.

Absolutely none of the many thousands of U.S. citizens then drawing unemployment benefits in California bit on those jobs, even though everyone on unemployment must report job-seeking efforts in order to get a check.

The reasonable conclusion from this experiment was that unemployed U.S. citizens eligible for benefits like weekly checks were not interested in the kind of low-paid, seasonal, menial and physically demanding jobs that often attract illegal immigrants to California and much of the nation.

Now Alabama has conducted what amounts to a similar experiment, but on a far larger scale.

America’s toughest immigration law ever was in full effect there for more than two weeks before a federal appeals court suspended two of its key provisions. That law still requires police to check the immigration status of suspects and turn any illegals over to federal authorities. For awhile, school officials had to demand birth certificates from new students. And illegal immigrants still cannot conduct business of any kind with state or local government – other than paying state taxes on sales, gasoline and other items.

No official numbers are in yet, as the law is still quite new.

But thousands of children were pulled out of public schools. No one knows if they will come back now that schools are no longer demanding documents. Water companies still refusing to provide new hookups to people who can’t prove they are legal residents. And hundreds of employers report losing droves of workers.

Many illegal immigrants – most of them Latinos, in keeping with federal statistics indicating about 83 percent of illegals hail from Mexico or other points south – have already left Alabama for other places like Texas, Louisiana and California, all places where there is at least some agricultural activity at this time of year.

Thousands of jobs once taken by illegals opened up and virtually everyone in Alabama – unemployed or not – quickly knew about it. That’s why all this amounts to the Feinstein experiment done over again, but on a huge scale.

Even though it’s too soon to have definite numbers, the results seem similar. Many tomato farms where pickers perform hard stoop labor report less than half their employees are now showing up regularly. Chicken farmers report many of their workers have also flown the coop. The Associated Press reports that many hundreds of legal immigrant workers employed in construction, plant nurseries and other industries left Alabama, too, at a time when the state desperately needs them to help rebuild tornado ravaged cities like Tuscaloosa.

There is no flood of U.S. citizens trying to get any of those jobs, despite Alabama’s 10 percent unemployment, well above the national average. Some farmers say they fear the labor shortage will put them out of business permanently.

Alabama contributes less than 2 percent of America’s agricultural output, but already supermarkets in Eastern and Midwestern states have upped the price of tomato and potato products, eggs and broiler chickens because production may falter in the labor shortage.

Imagine what might happen to prices nationwide if a similar law ever passes federally or in California, by far the country’s agricultural leader.

The Alabama experiment quickly had some strongly anti-illegal immigrant politicians scrambling. It’s no accident that Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the House Judiciary Committee chairman who has pushed a bill requiring all employers to use the federal E-Verify program to check the status of new hires, now proposes a large new guest worker program, too. Smith, then, has gone from trying to deport immigrant workers to trying to bring in more.

That’s because the government estimates 1.1 million illegal immigrants now work in agriculture, about one-third of them in California. Lose that work force and fruits would regularly rot on trees, berries and tomatoes would go unharvested and prices would rise exponentially in supermarkets everywhere.

The force of that reality, placed in bas relief by Alabama’s “experiment,” terrifies the owners of American agriculture, who often contribute heavily to Republican campaigns. So even Smith, who well knows that millions of participants in the old Bracero guest worker program stayed on illegally for decades after it ended, has turned around.

All of which makes Alabama a forceful lesson in the actual, but almost always ignored, contributions of illegal immigrant workers.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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