It is not uncommon to hear, within American politics, rhetoric that demonizes and dehumanizes undocumented workers. It is even more common to hear that undocumented workers are at the crux of many of the economic issues that face the United States. Politicians and pundits spout claims that such workers, often field hands and hard laborers, are stealing jobs from the American public.
And it’s not surprising that this past June, Alabama passed the strictest immigration legislation seen in the United States in an effort to combat the “problem of dealing with illegal immigration” — a problem that Alabama governor Robert Bentley said the federal government has failed to address.
Known as HB 56, the law has been contested and tried, and several components are now being blocked by the federal government, including one provision that would require public K–12 schools to check the citizenship of enrolling students.
As a result of this legislation, undocumented people in Alabama have fled the state in fear of legal backlash, leaving seats in classrooms empty, businesses closed and fields shorthanded.
And where does that leave farms, many of which have relied on the sweat and toil of immigrant workers?
The Associated Press recently reported that farms in rural Alabama are struggling to find laborers who are not only able-bodied but willing to stick with the work. Picking tomatoes, uprooting potatoes and plucking blueberries is thankless, grueling work and the pay for unskilled pickers can seem nonexistent. While a crew of four skilled farmhands can make $150 a day, a recent crew of 25 American workers not only produced less, they earned only about $24 a day.
Such reports only prove the fallacy in claims often touted by politicians: that undocumented workers are a threat to American jobs. While there are — and always will be — American workers willing to take up field work, an overwhelming majority of people tend to deem the work undesirable or prove to be unable to complete the task as well as experienced farmhands can.
Undocumented workers have continually been an economic scapegoat, but the Alabama legislation is only effectively proving the symbiotic relationship that exists between undocumented labor and American agriculture. This relationship, unfair to laborers, is one that has been seen consistently in American history — agricultural business thrives on the backs of the unpaid or underpaid and the overworked. From slavery, to Coolies and cheap labor, to undocumented — and vilified — field workers, American agriculture has become intimately tied to and, unfortunately, reliant on, immigrant workers.
Rhetoric that continues to devalue and dehumanize undocumented workers, depicting them as leeches on a system and a burden to Americans, is not only detrimental but clearly false. The threat to American jobs in the fields is not undocumented workers — it’s American expectations. The work outweighs the pay, and farms are hard-pressed to find American workers who are willing to break their backs for paychecks that don’t reflect the amount of work put in.
The issue of undocumented labor is much more complex and historically rooted than the Alabama legislation recognizes. By alienating people and forcing many to leave the state, Alabama’s government has only proved the inadequacy in our understanding of immigration and the U.S. economy.