Alabama Official Suggests Using Prisoners As Farm Workers After Immigration Law Scares Away Laborers

After Georgia passed its harsh immigration law in the spring, the state lost about 11,000 agricultural workers, and farmers were left with their crops rotting in the field because they did not have enough laborers to pick everything. One solution the state tried was to have people on probation and out of work fill in as an opportunity for them to learn some job skills. But the program only had mixed results, with many inmates walking off the job early.

Now, Alabama looks to be following Georgia’s path. John McMillan, head of Alabama’s agriculture department, suggested the state could have prison inmates take the jobs left by migrant workers who fled after Alabama’s extreme anti-immigrant law went into effect. It would be a short-term solution, he said, but would help farmers who risk losing crops if they can’t pick them in time:

“We are optimistic that by Monday we will have some help for farmers,” McMillan said. […]

Last summer in Georgia, which also passed an anti-immigra­tion law, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal started a pro­gram to offer fieldwork to probationers at minimum wage. During the first two days of the program, the pro­bationers picking cucumbers couldn’t keep up with their Latino counterparts and had all quit by mid-afternoon.

“That is why I’m em­phasizing that this is a short-term solution to get the cur­rent crops up,” McMillan said Thursday. “Then, we’ll look at the long term.”

But even short-term, it is not clear how well McMillan’s suggestion will work. Farmers have reported trouble finding Alabamians willing to do the farm work. “They don’t have the moti­vation to work,” said Kent Scott, who grows blueberries in Alabama. “(Immigrants) are willing to work. They are trying to feed their families. They’re hustling.” Even state Rep. Scott Beason, who sponsored the harshest-in-the-nation immigration law, refused a challenge to pick tomatoes just like the immigrant workers who Beason thought could be replaced. The St. Clair County farmer who challenged Beason said his family could lose $150,000 this year because they only had a quarter of the workforce they normally would during harvest.


Georgia is revising its own plan to allow inmates to work as farm laborers as farmers continue to lack the number of workers they need. And back in July, some in Georgia were amazed Alabama did not learn from their mistakes before its immigration law put its agricultural and construction industry in jeopardy. “It was like, ‘Good Lord, you people can’t be helped. Have you all not been paying attention?’” said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.