Alabama Anti-Immigration Law the Bane of Farmers' Agricultural Existence

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Civil rights attorneys and activists have sued to block an Alabama law that they claim would usurp federal immigration rules and position commercial farmers to replace migrant workers with employer-sponsored guest workers who would be relegated to a kind of indentured servitude.

Farmers also are protesting the measure, which trails a week-old Georgia law that makes presenting false documents to secure a job a felony.

The Alabama law, approved last month and set to take effect Sept. 1, bars undocumented immigrants from enrolling in or attending college and applying for or soliciting work. It restricts landlords from renting property to the undocumented, and requires school districts to determine the immigration status of schoolchildren.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Huntsville Friday, claims the Alabama law is of "unprecedented reach."

The lawsuit said, "Individuals who may be perceived as 'foreign' by state or local law enforcement agents will be in constant jeopardy of harassment and unlawfully prolonged detention by state law enforcement officers."

Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the lead groups in the coalition that filed the suit, said, "This law revisits the state's painful racial past and tramples the rights of all Alabama residents. It should never become the law of the land."

The Rev. Dr. Ellin Jimmerson, a Huntsville preacher-activist and filmmaker, took issue with the provisions in the law affecting school children. "The idea of parents having to provide information on their own children -- and you do have parents who are here legally but their children are not -- is just a bad idea," she said.

Her forthcoming documentary on the region's Latino immigrants will spotlight, among others, the politicians, businesspeople and other members of the Alabama's Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission and their backing of the federal guest-worker visa program. Through that program, employers may sponsor foreign workers and, depending on the kind of visa, pay those workers the prevailing wage or an unspecified, unreported wage.

"And what you've got is a captive worker who has to do and put up with anything you dish out," Jimmerson said.

Farmers in Alabama and Georgia have dismissed the new laws as unduly harsh and threatening to the region's migrant-dependent agricultural economy. "Farmers are law-abiding citizens," said Jeff Helm, spokesman for the Alabama Farmers Federation, which represents 48,000 farmers. "They want to do what is right.

"But they are concerned, one, that even the workers who are here legally would flee the state out of concern for what the law means. And, two, farmers [want assurance] that if they follow the law, but there's some breakdown in the system, that they won't suffer criminal repercussions. ... We believe these issues are better handled at the federal level."

Activist Ayaene Sepulvada, an Alabama Department of Human Services translator, mother of three, and wife to undocumented immigrant Ramon Sepulvada, said, "Many people have left already."

Her husband filed an application for a green card six years ago, but has lived in the United States for 18 years, she said.

"People do not understand, given their lack of education, what all this means," she added. "We've made our own plans to start moving if this gets ugly. We've talked to our children. We're waiting to see what happens."

Filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, the class-action suit also lists as plaintiffs the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Alabama, the National Immigration Law Center, the Asian Law Caucus and the Asian American Justice Center. The collective calls Alabama's the most extreme of what are now five sweeping anti-immigration state laws. Others have passed in Utah, Indiana and Arizona. All are being challenged in court.

'Scaring Hispanic Workers Away'

"This legislation is another indication of Alabama's Republican leadership going way to the right wing," said John Zippert, program director for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Rural Training & Research Center in Epes, Ala. "This is scaring Hispanic workers away, not just from the Alabama fields, but also from the northern Alabama, in chicken processing plants. I don't think other unemployed people are going to take those jobs. It's very hard work and not fairly paid. From an economic standpoint, this is a real problem."

Said Alabama House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, a Republican from Decatur and key sponsor of the new law: "It is no surprise that liberal groups working to shield those who live here illegally are trying to block implementation of our state immigration statute. ... We cannot turn a blind eye toward those who thumb their noses at our borders and our laws."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.