They were hard-working, loyal employes.
They toiled for hours on end, on their feet, at the Wayne Farms chicken processing plant in Marshall County in Alabama. Then, just like that, they left – scores of them, accounting for a big chuck of the 120 jobs that suddenly were unfilled.
“We had 850 employes, 120 openings is inordinately high for us,” said Wayne Farms spokesman Frank Singleton. “We play by the rules, we take applications and run them through the [federal immigration] verification program. But if people feel they’re being single out, they’re not going to stick around. They’re going to go elsewhere.”
Alabama officials recently held up Wayne Farms as an example of how the state’s new immigration law – the strictest in the United States – was creating employment opportunities for legal residents by driving out undocumented workers.
Only thing is, Singleton and other employers say, it also is driving out legal immigrants, and adversely impacting business and as well as communities.
“When you create an environment where one segment of the workforce feels stigmatized, at the end of the day it’s not good for employes, and it’s not good for the community,” Singleton said. “It causes a shrinkage in labor and affects our ability to fulfill [business] demands.”
The law, which allows police to detain people indefinitely if they are suspected of being in the country illegally and requires schools to check the status of new students when they enroll, has led to an exodus of mostly Latino immigrants.
They are disappearing from classrooms as well as from jobs, and officials who support the law say that is exactly what the law aimed for – to push out undocumented immigrants.
“We have the best law in the country and I stand by what we’ve done,” said state Sen. Scott Beason, a Republican, and one of the law’s authors, in an interview with The Associated Press. Beason said he knew there’d be some problems initially, but stressed that he is receiving “thank you” calls from people who have been hired to do jobs that apparently had been held by undocumented workers.
Efforts to reach Beason for comment for this story were unsuccessful Friday. Another state lawmaker said undocumented immigrants are an economic drain on Alabama, and that the state could not afford educating the children of undocumented immigrants, or providing other services to people who were in the country illegally.
Albertville City Councilman Chuck Ellis said that unemployment in the county already had seen a decline, from 9.5 to 9.3, since the law took effect.
Singleton said that while the company respects a state’s right to have its own laws, it is having “a chilling effect” on Latinos, who have been roughly 30 percent of Wayne Farms workforce in Alabama.
“These jobs are rather hard to fill,” he said. “The Latino community does fulfill that [labor] need for us. Our Latino workers are new Americans who have naturalized [as U.S. citizens] or they were born in the United States. The assumption is that everyone who is Latino is a migrant guest worker or here illegally.”
So why are legal workers leaving if the law targets undocumented immigrants?
Some community leaders in Alabama say that many families are “mixed status,” they include people who are U.S.-born, or legal permanent residents, but also relatives who are undocumented. Legal immigrants may be leaving, they have said, out of concern that their undocumented relatives may end up arrested and deported.
Others, such as Singleton, says it’s because of the hostile environment many Latinos say is pervading Alabama.
“Sociologically, the Latino community acts as an extended family,” he said. “People feel stigmatized” regardless of their status.
Wayne Farms is the sixth largest poultry producer in the United States. The company, headquartered in Georgia, owns and operate 10 facilities, produces 1.8 billion pounds of poultry each year and employs approximately 9,000, including 4,000 in six plants in Alabama.
One of the first to use E-verify – the federal database for checking eligibility to work in the United States – Wayne Farms pays line-workers between $9 and $13 an hour and grants full benefits.
Other employers say they’re feeling the sting of the new law, too.
Rick Pate, owner of a commercial landscaping company in Montgomery, lost two of his most experienced workers, who were in the country legally. He said he spent thousands of dollars training them install irrigation systems at places like the Hyundai plant.
“They just feel like there is a negative atmosphere for them here,” he said. “They don’t feel welcome. I don’t begrudge them. I’d feel nervous too.”
In the commercial building industry, it is estimated that as much as one-fourth of the work force has left since a federal judge in Birmingham upheld most parts of the law last week, according to the Associated General Contractors of Alabama.
A tomato farmer said only eight of her 48 Latino workers showed up for work after the law took effect. The workers who showed up said they were frightened.
Wayne Farms has made painstaking efforts, Singleton said, to reassure its workers that the law will not hurt them, that it is intended for those who are not documented.
Sometimes, such outreach efforts fall short, he said.
Fears and feeling unwelcome, he said, "transcends what we try to tell them."
"Every employee is valuable to us," he said. "It's hard work, there's a fair amount of manual labor, people have to be trained for these jobs."
"Latino community members make good long-term employees. They appreciate the opportunity to provide for their families. That's our point of reference with this community."
For now, Singleton said, the company is trying to juggle compassion for its workforce and federal and state laws and their ramifications.
"We need a better well-defined federal immigration policy," Singleton said, "instead of each state having its own immigration policy."
"The people in the [Latino] community are here to work," he said. "There is no other agenda. It's as simple as that."
This story contains material from The Associated Press.
Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @LlorenteLatino