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2 Big Lies About Immigration Disproved in One Alabama Town

Alabama's governor prides himself on the country's harshest anti-immigrant law, but his state is flourishing in part because of immigrants' hard work.

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So here one has all the ingredients for a story that seems to fit every nightmarish scenario dreamed up by the Pat Buchanans of the world. An impoverished town is overwhelmed with immigrants, who take many of the local jobs and whose kids show up at school in large numbers unable to speak a word of English. It’s the perfect assignment for lazy journalism, the kind of article that can write itself by plugging into predictable narratives. Slap the word INVASION across the screen and you’ve got a special report the likes of which Lou Dobbs—if he hadn’t been booted from CNN—wouldn’t have been able to resist.

Except they’d have the story entirely wrong.

The Real Jobs Problem: Exploitation

Consider the concern about jobs. The massive poultry plant can kill and process nearly 1.5 million birds a week. Day and night, hundreds of immigrant workers can be found slicing up chickens with knives and packing them into boxes to be shipped worldwide. According to proponents of Alabama’s new bill, the plant is the scene of grand larceny, with each undocumented immigrant stealing a job out of the hands of a deserving citizen.

Yet like many abstract arguments against immigration, this quickly falls apart upon examination in the real world. When I relocated to Russellville in 2008, I found that, as a citizen, it was exceedingly easy to “steal” a job back: I was hired within a week after arriving. There was only one test to pass: I took a Breathalyzer in front of a company nurse to prove I hadn’t come to the interview drunk. (And yes, people do fail.)

As I soon learned, the hard part wasn’t getting the job; the hard part was keeping the job. During a single shift I could be asked to tear apart more than 7,000 chicken breasts by hand or carry and dump 30 tons of meat onto an assembly line. The work was painful and unpleasant, with my hands and wrists aching and bits of chicken fat often stuck to my face. To deal with the pain, management had installed machines dispensing various brands of painkillers along one wall of the break room, and during our orientation we were advised to take such pills every four hours.

Within two weeks, most of the people who had gone through the English-language orientation with me had left. This was typical. I learned from a previous employee that during one week the plant had hired 150 new people; that same week, 175 workers quit. During the six weeks I was employed at the plant, new faces appeared every day.

There is a problem here, certainly. The workers are treated as disposable and wages top out at about $10 an hour. Folks work hard for low wages, frequently suffering lifelong injuries in the process. But this isn’t an immigration problem: two-thirds of the workers are American born.

Nor is this is a new problem: work has been brutal ever since the plant opened, originally staffed by an entirely local workforce. At the time, Gov. Gay Hunt heralded the plant’s opening as a watershed moment for economic development in the state. Presumably with a straight face, he argued that the poultry plant ensured “our children won’t have to leave the state to find jobs.” Indeed, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were spent to attract Gold Kist, the company that built the plant (Gold Kist was bought by Pilgrim’s Pride in 2006.) To justify the public subsidy, a Gold Kist representative called poultry plant work “the finest-type industry” before adding that many workers would earn just $4.35 an hour.

 
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