Skinning, gutting, and cutting up catfish is not easy or pleasant work. No one knows this better than Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select, which has a processing plant in impoverished Uniontown, Ala. For years, Rhodes has had trouble finding Americans willing to grab a knife and stand 10 or more hours a day in a cold, wet room for minimum wage and skimpy benefits.
Most of his employees are Guatemalan. Or they were, until Alabama enacted an immigration law in September that requires police to question people they suspect might be in the U.S. illegally and punish businesses that hire them. The law, known as HB56, is intended to scare off undocumented workers, and in that regard it’s been a success. It’s also driven away legal immigrants who feared being harassed.
Rhodes arrived at work on Sept. 29, the day the law went into effect, to discover many of his employees missing. Panicked, he drove an hour and a half north to Tuscaloosa, where many of the immigrants who worked for him lived. Rhodes, who doesn’t speak Spanish, struggled to get across how much he needed them. He urged his workers to come back. Only a handful did. “We couldn’t explain to them that some of the things they were scared of weren’t going to happen,” Rhodes says. “I wanted them to see that I was their friend, and that we were trying to do the right thing.”
His ex-employees joined an exodus of thousands of immigrant field hands, hotel housekeepers, dishwashers, chicken plant employees, and construction workers who have fled Alabama for other states. Like Rhodes, many employers who lost workers followed federal requirements—some even used the E-Verify system—and only found out their workers were illegal when they disappeared.
In their wake are thousands of vacant positions and hundreds of angry business owners staring at unpicked tomatoes, uncleaned fish, and unmade beds. “Somebody has to figure this out. The immigrants aren’t coming back to Alabama—they’re gone,” Rhodes says. “I have 158 jobs, and I need to give them to somebody.”