“It’s the law now in Alabama, and we’re working with our farmers to help them comply with it. There are some good ideas in both the U.S. House and Senate to help improve the guest worker program, so we’re hoping for some relief from Congress,” says Higginbotham.

Alabama’s strict new immigration legislation wasn’t passed until about halfway through the 2011 growing season, so it may be next year before some growers feel the full impact, he says.

The problem now, says Higginbotham, is that farmers can’t plan adequately for next season.

“Producers of fruits and vegetables are having a hard time making their plans for what to plant next season because they don’t know where the labor force will come from. It’s always a large investment and a risk. But it’s even more of a risk when you’re not sure if you’ll have the labor to harvest the crop,” he says.

In a seminar held earlier this year in north Alabama to discuss Alabama’s new immigration law, an attorney advised growers not to expect the courts to block the sections of the law that are most relevant to them.

“Pending lawsuits do not challenge the provisions that would likely be more important to you,” says Ted Hosp, an attorney with Maynard, Cooper and Gale. “Therefore, it is extremely important that as of April 1, 2012, you enroll in and use E-Verify.”

One of the challenges of the new law is that it doesn’t provide an option for existing workers to obtain legal work visas, said Hosp.

“Once an employee is here illegally, it is next to impossible to make that worker a legal worker.”

Paul Schlegel of the American Farm Bureau Federation urged growers at the seminar to tell their legislators how the new law is affecting their businesses, in hopes that state lawmakers will pressure Congress to develop an effective guest worker program.

Recently, key Republican state senators in Alabama have hinted they might consider changes in the law when the legislature convenes in February. One senator said there was “wide agreement” that the bill had several unintended consequences.

A study issued in February by the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research organization in Washington, estimated that 95,000 unauthorized immigrants worked in Alabama in 2009 and 2010, making up about 4.2 percent of the state’s labor force. Of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, some seven million are in the job force.

phollis@farmpress.com