By David Palmer
The Cullman Times
GOOD HOPE —
Local legislators faced a large gathering of area farmers Monday to solicit ideas for solving the farm labor issue that accompanies a pending federal court decision on the state's strict and controversial immigration law.
With a federal judge currently holding up the law as she reviews numerous challenges, the message from Cullman County farmers was for lawmakers to ensure that their laborers are not forced out of the state by the law. Legislators attending the meeting — Sen. Paul Bussman and Reps. Jeremy Oden and Mac Buttram — said they came to the meeting to gather more ideas and pledged to continue efforts to find a solution.
Farmers, however, are growing anxious as the deadline for a federal judge to address challenges draws near. The ruling is expected Sept. 28. During the days ahead, crops must be harvested and farmers are worried that their laborers, largely Hispanic, will leave if the ruling does not delay or overturn portions of the law.
"Give us hope, give us something," said farmer Jeremy Calvert, who served as moderator at the meeting. "We feed more people than ever before. We have to have a labor force. There are no machines to pick fresh tomatoes or cucumbers. We use Hispanic labor because we have to. We're caught between a rock and a hard place."
Calvert's words were repeated often concerning the largely Hispanic workforce that harvests the state's and nation's crops.
Keith Smith, a Gold Ridge area farmer who helped organize the event, said the labor issue extends beyond the agriculture community. He said other industries rely heavily on Hispanic labor because of necessity.
Bussman, a Republican who voted for the immigration bill, said he had concerns about the legislation because of how quickly the Legislature passed many bills. He has said that he was willing to tweak the legislation.
“I'm here to get ideas and answers. The Republican Senate caucus meets Thursday and I'm ready to take these ideas to them," Bussman said.
Oden said he has been working with other lawmakers and the state Commission of Agriculture and Industries to find a solution that would allow farmers to continue to hire the labor they need.
“We tried to get some of your issues in the bill, but it didn't work," Oden said. "Right now we are also waiting on the judge's order to see what she says."
Buttram also said the intent of his colleagues in the House was not to intentionally hurt farmers.
“I do not see this as adversarial situation. You have not set out to hire illegal labor," Buttram said.
Wayne Walker, representing state Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, said the commissioner has been traveling the state talking to farmers about the immigration law.
"He feels like we can't bankrupt farmers and ranchers. You can't get Americans to work (farm labor) anymore," Walker said. "Millions of dollars were lost in Georgia because of this. The governor said he would put prisoners in the field. That lasted about three hours," Walker said.
Walker also said that McMillan has been in Utah looking at that state's idea of issuing work permits for farm workers. The proposal is to do criminal background checks and if the workers are OK they can have a permit for two years. At that time they would be checked again.
Several local farmers and legislators say they are interested in having work permits to keep their labor force intact.
“If this is not worked out, we'll get produce from other places like China, and there's no telling what it will be sprayed with,” Walker said.
Shannon Dyar, a poultry farmer from Arab, also noted the problems that a tough immigration law caused in Georgia.
“You lose the whole workforce and you lose the whole revenue. These folks are key players,” Dyar said
Charles Herfurth of Vinemont said many of the laborers want to do the right things and pay taxes.
"We want to get work permits for those people. Sure, send them back if they're bad. But there's also people who take advantage of them, too," Herfurth said. "We have to feed this country and only a few us are going to do it."
Lawmakers in attendance Monday said they agree that a solution needs to be found, but they have also noted that a great majority of residents want accountability where immigration is concerned.
After the meeting ended, Smith said he was pleased with the ideas and the tone of the exchanges.
"The best thing that could happen would be for the governor to step in and put this whole thing on hold. That would allow time for the legislators to work out something that is manageable and protects farming in Alabama," Smith said. "A lot of people are waiting on the judge but it's time to start the harvest and everybody is worrying if people will be here to get the crops out of the ground."
Lawmakers would not be able to address the issue without a special session. Otherwise, the regular session of the Legislature will be in February 2012.
* David Palmer may be contacted at 256-734-2131, ext. 213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.