Alabama Law Threatens Tornado Recovery as Hispanics Flee

When Tuscaloosa, Alabama, begins rebuilding more than 7,200 homes and businesses leveled by an April 27 tornado, it may find itself missing a workforce capable of putting the city together again.

That’s what Ever Duarte, head of the city’s Hispanic soccer league, said after losing a third of his teams in a week. Tuscaloosa County’s 6,000-strong Hispanic population --including roofers, Sheetrockers, concrete pourers, framers, landscapers and laborers -- is disappearing, he said, before a law cracking down on illegal immigrants takes effect.

“They’re leaving now, right now,” Duarte, 36, said during a pause in a pick-up soccer game last week in a neighborhood gym. “I know people who are packing up tonight. They don’t want to wait to see what happens. It started last week. Our league had 12 teams the week before that. Last week, it was eight.”

Governor Robert Bentley signed Alabama’s 72-page measure June 9, calling it “the strongest immigration bill in the country.” Alabama became the fifth state to enact sanctions against undocumented workers, following Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia, where a federal judge yesterday blocked part of the restrictions. Tuscaloosa is getting an early gauge of the law’s effects in its state.

Trail of Ruin

The tornado roared through Tuscaloosa, killing 43 and leaving a path of rubble and ruin three-quarters of a mile wide and six miles (9.6 kilometers) long. The law, which takes effect in September, threatens to unleash its own havoc.

“Hispanics, documented and undocumented, dominate anything to do with masonry, concrete, framing, roofing, and landscaping,” said Bob McNelly, a contractor with Nash-McCraw Properties, during an interview at a coffee shop near a destroyed gas station and bank. “There are very few subcontractors I work with that don’t have a Hispanic workforce.”

The city of 90,000 imposed a moratorium on major reconstruction that ends Aug. 8 to enable it to plan its remaking. The rebuilding, McNelly said, will be harder and more expensive without them:

“It’s not the pay rate. It’s the fact that they work harder than anyone. It’s the work ethic.”

High and Dry

Gary Phillips, a former Tuscaloosa City Council member and president of a contracting firm, Premier Service Company Inc., also said he foresees pain for businesses.

“What happens to that large, multistory building going up at that time and the Sheetrocker is halfway through his thing and the job is stopped?” Phillips said in an interview at his lawyer’s office. “All of ‘em are gone. They’re under contract and what are they going to do?”

What they will do is pay higher wages to other workers, if they find any with the experience and skills, he said.

Undocumented workers are weighing the risks. Lorenzo Posado, 28, said he’s torn about leaving, changing his mind twice in one telephone interview.

“My boys are born here,” he said. “I like Tuscaloosa. A big part of my life is Tuscaloosa. What I’m seeing happening is that they put a bad law through the state. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Some contractors say a labor shortage is unnecessary.

“There are plenty of people capable of working, if they’d just get off their butts and do it,” said Rich Cooper, a contractor with Bell Construction, in a telephone interview.

Back to Work

The new law will help employ Alabamians, one of its sponsors, state Senator Scott Beason, a Republican from Gardendale, said at the June 9 signing.

“This will put thousands of Alabamians back in the workforce,” he said.

Labor Department statistics say workers are available: In Alabama, the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent in May, down from 10.4 percent in December 2009, and higher than the 9.1 percent national average.

In the past decade, Hispanics flocked to work in Tuscaloosa. The congregation at Holy Spirit Catholic Church’s Spanish-language Mass doubled over eight years to nearly fill the 1,000-person sanctuary, and the collection tripled, said Dorothy McDade, who runs an outreach program there.

Like Duarte and his soccer league, she’s seen a recent drop. “There were some hollow spots out there,” she said, of the previous day’s Mass.

About 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) southwest of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa is the home of the University of Alabama and its storied football team, and Nucor Steel Tuscaloosa. A Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz plant is nearby.

Coaxing Them Out

The tornado destroyed commercial buildings along one of the city’s main arterial streets, and leveled homes in rich and poor neighborhoods, said Councilman Kip Tyner. One of the poorest was in Tyner’s district, and was where most Hispanics lived, he said in an interview last week.

He spent days trying to get constituents, including illegal immigrants, to safety.

“People were afraid to come forward,” he said. “I got about 40 or 50 to churches.”

Had the immigration law been in effect, Tyner’s actions would have broken it. As a public official, he will have to help detain and report suspected illegal immigrants.

Bills expanding immigration-law enforcement were introduced in 28 state legislative sessions this year, according to a Bloomberg analysis of measures identified by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Suits and Crimes

They failed in 22 states, including Florida, Colorado and Kentucky and Louisiana. The bills were opposed by Chambers of Commerce and agricultural associations, and have led to federal legal challenges in Arizona and Georgia. In Georgia, they have also led to a shortage of farmworkers, according to a survey by the state Agriculture Department.

Alabama, which according to the Pew Hispanic Center has about 149,000 Latino residents, went further than most states in criminalizing assistance to illegal immigrants with the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.

Hiring, housing, renting to and providing transportation to them will be crimes. Employers -- including subcontractors and temporary agencies -- will have to use the federal E-Verify system to check workers’ legal status. The law also charges police and other officials, including those in public schools, with checking residency rights.

When the tornado hit, Holy Spirit’s Hispanic congregants saw the bright side, said McDade and Lou Ginocchio, a church volunteer.

“They were saying, ‘So much work, so much work, so much work,’” said Ginocchio. “And then the law passed.”

Seeking Labor

Since April 27, Tuscaloosa has issued 1,069 business licenses, of which 81 percent, or 870, were for concerns related to the storm damage, Linda McKinney, the Revenue Department’s director, said in a telephone interview. A normal year would bring no more than 100 in the same time, she said.

McDade said contractors have called looking for workers and that she hadn’t had anybody to recommend.

“They’re leaving,” she said. “Anybody with family in another state is going to go.”

Miguel Ramirez has been working in the U.S. without documents for 12 years, and said he moved to Tuscaloosa for post-storm construction jobs.

He had been in New Orleans, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, he said through an interpreter in a mall parking lot.

When the law takes effect, he said, “Tuscaloosa will feel it. The talk in our community is that people are packing their things.”

Ramirez said he’ll leave, too.

“I would work for $100 a day in Louisiana rather than $150 a day here,” he said. “In Louisiana, the word there is that the governor is still grateful for the work we did.”