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Mixed message on illegal aliens
Some say Hispanic influx a major force behind state's economic growth

By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Staff Writer

eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

"My agenda is to make it so difficult to live in Alabama that they will leave."

State Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, made that statement last week, explaining why he is pursuing legislation to crack down on illegal Hispanic immigrants.

Hammon's statement typifies one end of a debate.

Jesse Hernandez, president of the Hispanic Employment Labor Pool in Birmingham, offers another side.

"They don't want to be here, but they need the work."

Hernandez said Alabama sends a mixed signal to undocumented Hispanics.

Many feel undocumented workers should be sent back across the border; however, employers invite them to work and live here. The invitation also comes from consumers who want what Alabama employers produce, said Hernandez.

Hispanics have accepted the invitation. Census figures indicate 84,000 documented Hispanics in the state. Demographic experts estimate the total number of Hispanics is about three times that.

Hernandez explains: "They are here to work, and that's what they do."

Morgan and Limestone counties have unemployment rates that hover around 5 percent.

Bill Wilkes, an economics professor at Athens State University, said that means we have full employment; the 5 percent reflects people between jobs and people who are not employable.

What happens to Alabama's economic engine if we take Hispanics out of the equation?

Rich Lopez, who runs a radio station in Dothan and owns a marketing agency oriented toward Hispanic consumers, has studied the question and believes he has an answer. His focus is the Wiregrass region of Alabama, which, like North Alabama, has poultry plants and other industries dependent upon low-cost labor.

"Take the (documented and undocumented) Hispanics out of the picture and what kind of economic development do you have? None," Lopez said. "What potential for growth? None."

That suggests an interdependence between immigrants and producers that leaves Lopez shaking his head when he hears comments like Hammon's.

"My cry, my argument, is why don't we try to find the means to collectively make sure they are documented and follow the rules expediently," Lopez continued, "rather than to indiscriminately say we don't want them?"

Lopez said many politicians are blind to the economic benefit shouldered by Hispanics.

Dispel the myth

"I want to dispel the myth that Hispanics come here begging for welfare and running up medical bills. That's garbage," Lopez said.

"It's a healthy, working force. It's not an aged force, not an ill force. It's a good and vibrant working force."

Hernandez picks as his hero of Hispanic immigration: President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, he successfully pushed an amnesty program in which the United States issued green cards to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants.

"Look at what happened after that," Hernandez said.

Wilkes points to an Alabama economy that has thrived on the labor provided by baby boomers. The boomers are leaving the work force at increasing rates, however, with no corresponding drop in consumer demand.

Without the fuel of low-cost labor, the economy soon will stutter, said Wilkes. Wage inflation will precipitate increased prices and artificially suppressed production.

Low wages needed

In light of the free trade agreements NAFTA and recently enacted CAFTA, explained Carl Ferguson, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at The University of Alabama, access to low-wage labor is the difference between a plant that remains in Alabama and one that opens a plant outside the United States.

"You have to have that low-cost labor because those tasks are not automated," Ferguson said. "Somebody has to go in the chicken house and round up the chickens. It is very labor intensive and relatively low skill."

Ferguson said in post-NAFTA and post-CAFTA Alabama, a shortage of low-wage labor will tend to drive labor-intensive industries — agriculture, poultry and textiles, for example — south of the U.S. border.

"(NAFTA and CAFTA) make it easier for jobs to be exported. If it's cheaper to employ labor and other resources in Mexico, for example, that's what they will have the incentive to do," said David Allen, an associate professor of economics at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Economist Wilkes agreed with Hammon that undocumented Hispanics are a drain on the system, but he said the puzzle piece they supply to producers makes the issue more complex.

"(Undocumented Hispanics) are putting huge demands on the public education system, on all of the government-provided services. The cops now have to speak Spanish. At Athens (State), we're starting to offer conversational Spanish for our teachers," Wilkes said. "That's a drain on society."

Wilkes said it is, however, a one-generation drain.

"As baby boomers work through the system and they retire, we're going to need workers," Wilkes said. "There's an argument that we ought to liberalize our immigration policy to allow people to come in now so they are adequately trained when we most need them."

Access to low-wage labor for Alabama companies helps narrow the gap between United States and Mexican labor costs, Hernandez said, reducing the likelihood of corporate flight. Not only does that keep capital-intensive plants in the state, it also keeps laborers — and their paychecks — in Alabama.

"The reality is that we need them as much as they need us," Hernandez said.

The shortage of low-wage labor is not just theoretical. Poultry producer Wayne Farms, which has a plant in Decatur and has 10,000 employees in three states, is in a constant struggle to overcome the shortage.

Its spokesman, Frank Singleton, said the company does not set out to hire Hispanics. It needs low-wage, competent workers. More often than not, Hispanics are the ones who show up.

"We canvass the community, we run ads in the local paper. But finally the people we validate for work are going to be the people who show up," Singleton said.

"It's not a situation where we said we want to choose a bunch of employees that are from an immigrant work force," he continued. "It is literally, we have X number of jobs available in this local community."

Thirty-nine percent of the company's workers in the Decatur plant are Hispanics. Most make between $6 and $7 an hour.

Singleton said Wayne Farms takes care to hire only legal immigrants, but the same labor needs that cause it to open its doors to legal Hispanics causes others to solicit Hispanics without work visas. Those same Hispanics need to get to work every day, which they cannot do legally without a driver license.

Hispanic buzz saw

Hernandez is president-elect of the Birmingham chapter of National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

Without Hispanics, including the undocumented ones, the state's construction industry would falter, Hernandez said.

"They fill the least glamorous jobs," Hernandez said. "Construction, service jobs, the lower paying, more labor-intensive jobs."

Like Lopez, Hernandez bristles when politicians bad-mouth Hispanics for displacing U.S.-born workers.

"That's a myth. They fill the throwaway jobs."

The driver-license issue looms large for Hispanic advocates.

"They don't necessarily need to be afforded citizenship," said East Coast Migrant Head Start Director Teresa Johnson of Steele. "Just a legal work document and a license to drive. Alabama will not give licenses to people here on work visas. How asinine is that?"

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