Employers in Alabama’s Marshall County are hiring new workers following the stepped-up federal and state enforcement of immigration laws.
“It is amazing to see the effects” as undocumented workers leave town, said Chuck Ellis, a member of Albertville’s city council.
Immigration is a hot-button issue that is testing the skills of candidates as diverse as President Barack Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. They’re being further tested by a wave of new state laws, and by some limited federal enforcement, which are giving voters real-world tests of rival policies.
On Monday, for example, the Wayne Farms chicken-processing plant in Marshall County held a jobs fair to fill slots that opened when many illegal workers left the county. The line “was probably equivalent to a couple of blocks … It was a largely Anglo and black group,” but also included Hispanics, said Ellis.
“It is tough work, very tough … my momma did it for a while, I’ve had friends who did it,” said Ellis, who also works as a local sheriff.
The new reform measures are also reducing classroom crowding in the 4,000-student school district, said Ellis. Roughly 150 kids of migrant workers have departed the district, and perhaps 500 more will leave as enforcement continues, he said. “It is tough on those kids,” but their departure will free up teachers to work with other Hispanic kids that need to learn English, he said.
“A large proportion of the illegal Hispanic community has moved … self-deportation is a real thing,” said Ellis. Because of the exodus, the county’s unemployment rate has dropped to from about 9.5 percent to roughly 9.3 percent over the last several weeks, he said.
The reforms in Alabama, and similar changes in Arizona and other states and cities that have begun enforcing immigration laws, have spurred furious opposition from the Hispanic ethnic lobby, and has put the administration in a political bind, said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes illegal immigration and seeks to shrink legal immigration.
President Barack Obama and his appointees do not want to want to alienate the many swing-voters who support enforcement of immigration laws, but they also don’t want to displease Hispanic advocacy groups that provide money and volunteers for Democratic candidates, he said. “I’m not sure that’s a needle they can thread,” he said.
Administration officials are trying.
A Sept. 30 report in the Washington Post said officials in the Justice Department were considering further legal action against Alabama and Arizona, and also lawsuits against South Carolina, Georgia, Utah and Indiana. Those lawsuits would be cheered by Hispanic advocacy groups, such as the National Council of La Raza ,which have complained that Obama has not used his executive authority to effectively end enforcement of immigration laws.
In a concession to those groups, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has championed the administration’s new policy of deporting criminal immigrants while largely ignoring illegal immigrants who have not committed additional crimes, such as felonies. “Vesting discretion in our immigration enforcement officers and immigration lawyers is not amnesty,” she declared in a Oct. 5 speech at American University.
However, the relaxed enforcement of immigration law further undermines Obama’s weak support among working-class whites, and also his weakening support among African Americans, said Krikorian.
To please those voters, Napolitano’s department is quietly stepping up enforcement of workplace laws.
In Alabama, “a lot of meat-packing plants that have been using migrant workers, are beginning to be more stringent in checking things” because of stepped-up federal enforcement and new state reforms, Ellis said.
Prior to the federal enforcement, he said, some chicken-processing plants were happy to hire illegals immigrants who did not complain if the company saved money by skimping on required benefits, such as health insurance that costs $1,000 per month. That illegal practice could slice up to $1 million from a plant’s annual operating costs, he said.
On Monday, there were 120 open slots at the 850-person Wayne Farms facility, partly because some Hispanic workers had recently left, said company spokesman Frank Singleton. The firm has long used the federal E-Verify system to confirm job-applicants’ eligibility, and it pays line-workers between $9 and $13 per hour, with full benefits, he said. Roughly 350 people applied for the jobs, he said.
In Alabama’s Marshall County, “three in four [locals] endorse the fact that there’s something being done” by the federal and state governments, Ellis said.
But the political downside of Obama’s needle-threading was made clear Sept. 29, when he was pushed by the Spanish-language managers of three online networks to further relax immigration enforcement. Obama responded by defending his new relaxed enforcement policies while also saying he cannot change federal law by himself, and that Hispanic advocacy groups must persuade Congress to change the law.
His needle-threading policy won’t work, partly because Hispanic voters are more worried about jobs and mortgages than about immigration, and they’re losing confidence in Obama’s economic policies, said Krikorian.
Support for Obama among Hispanics has slipped nationwide to below 50 percent, but remains strong in some states, such as swing-state Colorado. Since Spring, Obama has stepped up his outreach to Hispanic voters, partly by inviting Hispanic celebrities to White House events, but also by including money for construction projects in his $447 billion, one-year jobs-stimulus bill.
Republicans can win swing-voting Hispanics if they offer economy-boosting policies and also treat them with respect, he said. “If the message is ‘we don’t like you,’ they won’t vote for you,” he said.
A recent poll of 1,500 likely Hispanic voters, conducted for the Spanish-language TV network, Univision, found that 15 percent of Hispanics describe themselves as independents, and 19 percent say they’re Republican. But 32 percent of Democratic-affiliated Hispanics also describe themselves as conservative.
Hispanics’ top concern, according to the poll, was government waste of taxes, the economy, cultural values and other concerns broadly shared by non-Hispanic Americans.
Despite the claims of Hispanic ethnic lobbies, a demand for amnesty and easier immigration was far down Hispanics’ priority list. Only 17 percent, according to the poll, said “politicians aren’t serious about real immigration reform.”
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