One of Alabama's chief arguments in favor of its draconian crackdown on Latino immigrants is the cynical lie that its new law was meant to provide farm jobs for American workers by chasing out the unauthorized Mexicans and Central Americans who had been doing this work up to now. But attempts to recruit Americans to replace the Latinos who are fleeing the state have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Almost no Americans want to do this kind of work.
Some immigrant rights advocates are pointing to this as proof that Alabama's racist anti-Latino immigation law was self-defeating. Spanish-speaking farm workers, according to this argument, were vital to Alabama's economy, and forcing them to leave the state was economically stupid. There is no one left to pick the vegetables - American farm owners and consumers are suffering. In effect, the rest of us are saying to Alabama: "See, bigotry is bad for business. We told y'all so."
There is some truth to this. But before we shed too many tears for the Alabama farm owners who no longer have anyone left to pick the vegetables, we should ask why Americans are not rushing to fill these vacated farm jobs in a time of high unemployment and economic anxiety. The answer is obvious. Few Americans want these jobs, because no one wants to be exploited.
Latino immigrants on these farms have been doing long, terrible, backbreaking work. One can only imagine what their living conditions were like. Whatever small pay they were getting, according to news reports, depended on many things beyond their control - the amount of produce picked, the number of other workers, the general financial situation of the farm, etc. The bottom line is that, evidently, there were no laws to protect farm workers, US citizens or foreign workers alike, from exploitation. Even if there had been, unauthorized immigrants are never in a position to speak up.
Alabama, and the South, not only have a long history of racial prejudice and discrimination, but 'they also have a proven track record of hostility toward unions or any form of workers' rights. America in general also has a long history of letting Mexican and Central American workers come here when there is low-paid, backbreaking work to be done, and then kicking them out when the economy goes South (but the Mexicans do not).
Alabama is now punishing the victims, not the perpetrators, of a vicious system of farm worker exploitation which the rest of America has tolerated for far too long. Nor is Alabama the only state to engage in exploitation of both immigrant and American unskilled workers. But persecuting brown-skinned immigrants, rather than protecting all unskilled workers, will not solve the problem.
Nor will it solve the larger problem of an American economy, which, more and more, is being shown to depend on exploitation of the poor and middle class by the very rich. We have seen this in the banking crisis which gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street Movement, in the argument over health insurance, in the movement to weaken environmental, labor union and consumer protection laws, and most recently in the "flat tax" and other similar scams to shift more of the tax burden away from the people who can afford it most and onto the ones who can afford it the least.
This radical right-wing agenda, which almost every leading Republican politician subscribes to and faces only weak opposition from the Democrats, is increasing joblessness and poverty among the great majority of Americans, even as it seeks to destroy a social safety net which took almost a century to build. The Republicans need to find scapegoats to deflect public outrage more than ever. Without effective use of hate - against gays, Muslims, African-Americans, the poor, but especially against Latino, Asian and black immigrants, the Republican party would cease to exist.
This is why the GOP needs unauthorized minority immigrants even more than do Alabama's farm owners. This is why radical Republican legislatures, in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina in particular, are trying to bring back the old days of segregation and racial persecution, but this time with a Latin beat.
This is why Arizona, once the home of Barry Goldwater, then considered the most radical right wing major politician in America (but whom many Republicans would probably call a "socialist" now) was the first state to pass an anti-immigrant hate law. If they did not already have brown-skinned immigrants, the Republicans (and their Democratic appeasers) would have had to invent them.
Roger Algase is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has been practicing business immigration law in New York City for more than 20 years.