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Ala. Needs Workers, Law Chases Away Immigrants


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Events in Alabama exposed some of the conflicting interest in this country's debate over immigration. Americans are concerned about illegal immigrants, but much of the U.S. economy relies on immigrant labor. That conflict became clear in Alabama after the state approved what is considered the nation's toughest immigration law. It allows police to detain people indefinitely if they are suspected of being in the country illegally. Those rules have led to an exodus of mostly Hispanic low-wage workers. And now businesses say they're having a hard time finding replacements. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The complaints are coming from several sectors of Alabama's economy - agriculture, construction, timber, even tourism.


ELLIOTT: In a large warehouse-like building in Orange Beach, a town on the Alabama Gulf Coast, about a half-dozen workers wash and sort laundry. Clean towels and sheets are fed through automated folders and packed into giant bags destined for beach-front condos. Bill Brett of Brett-Robinson Real Estate says the facility goes through about two and half million pounds of laundry a year. But in the wake of Alabama's new immigration law, he's wondering how the company will keep up.

BILL BRETT: We've had many employees leave that were legal. Maybe a family member wasn't legal, or maybe a close friend or relative. Or maybe they're just scared of being targeted and they're just uncomfortable staying in this community and working here.

ELLIOTT: Brett says finding enough workers for his housekeeping crew has always been a problem, but now it's worse than ever.

BRETT: We're not getting the applications. We're desperate.

ELLIOTT: The firm has been using the federal E-Verify system to make sure its workforce is legal for more than a year now - well ahead of the new state requirement. Brett says he understands the concerns about illegal immigrants, but says the new law reaches beyond them.

BRETT: And I just feel like that unintentionally we're treating some of these people like they're less than human.

One worker who has remained is Jassiel, who only wants to be identified by her first name. She's worked for Brett-Robinson Real Estate for 11 years. The Panama native is a naturalized U.S. citizen. She says the immigration law has struck fear throughout the Hispanic community in South Alabama, in part because of a provision that allows police to jail suspects on reasonable suspicion that they're in the country illegally.

JASSIEL: They're scared. They - it is sad because they feel like they are being treating as a criminal.

GOVERNOR ROBERT BENTLEY: All we ask is that those who live and work in our state do so legally.

ELLIOTT: That's Republican Governor Robert Bentley at a news conference yesterday announcing a new initiative called Work Alabama, a response to the mounting complaints from businesses that the new law is driving away even the legal seasonal workers they count on.

BENTLEY: On a short-term basis we want to match up the jobs that are available today in Alabama with the people who are looking for a job right now.

ELLIOTT: Bentley rejects the notion that unemployed Alabamians are not interested in some of the vacant jobs - in the fields and laundry rooms.

BENTLEY: I think it's almost insulting to say that people in Alabama won't do a hard day's work for a decent day's pay. And they'll do it. And all we have to do is provide them that opportunity.

ELLIOTT: Realtor Bill Brett is not so sure.

BRETT: The cliches are that these people are taking American jobs. And they're not. They're taking jobs that Americans don't want for the most part. You know, we have the numbers to prove it.

ELLIOTT: Brett says on his janitorial crew he typically loses 75 percent of local hires within the first month of working. He doesn't advocate repealing the state's immigration law but says it needs to be re-evaluated.

BRETT: I'm about a conservative of a person as you will meet. But I feel like we've gone too far.

ELLIOTT: Jay Reed, president of Alabama Associated Builders and Contractors, hears similar concerns from his members, who are worried about the climate created by the state's crackdown.

JAY REED: At some point we've got to say those that were here legally, you are welcome here.

ELLIOTT: Until then, Reed says, the state has got to find new ways to fill the worker void. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.