Grapes of Wrath Fermenting in Alabama

Henry Fonda as member of the Joad family

It’s too early to say for sure, but it appears that Alabama’s tough new laws aimed at undocumented immigrants (passed September 1) are not only upending the state’s Hispanic communities. They are also having a negative impact on the state’s economy.  The turmoil reminds me of the antagonism directed towards the “Okies” in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

According to a New York Times editorial, the Alabama law

is already reaping a bitter harvest of dislocation and fear. Hispanic homes are emptying, businesses are closing, employers are wondering where their workers have gone. Parents who have not yet figured out where to go are lying low and keeping children home from school.

The editorial goes on to say that legal immigrants are also feeling an impact:

Legal immigrants and native-born Alabamans who happen to be or look Hispanic are now far more vulnerable to officially sanctioned harassment. Many of those children being kept home from school by frightened parents are born and bred Americans.

The problems do not stop there. Farmers are already worrying that with the exodus, crops will go unpicked. Like much of the rest of the country, Alabama needs immigrant labor, because too many native-born citizens lack the skill, the stamina and the willingness to work in the fields — even in a time of steep unemployment.

Here’s a passage from Steinbeck’s novel that suddenly feels current again:

The deputy turned back to them. “Might be a good idear to go,” he said. The thin smile was back on his face. “Board of Health says we got to clean out this camp. An’ if it gets around that you got reds out here—why somebody might git hurt. Be a good idear if all you fellas moved on to Tulare. They isn’t a thing to do aroun’ here. That’s jus’ a friendly way a telling you. Be a bunch a guys down here, maybe with pick handles, if you ain’t gone.”

There’s one positive: so far as I know,  pick handle violence isn’t occurring in Alabama.  In fact, many Alabamians are starting to think that the state has gone too far.

The Grapes of Wrath helps us understand how the State Legislature has violated a tacit agreement with Alabama businesses. In the novel, workers are lured to California with the promise of jobs, but the farm managers make sure to attract more workers than they need. This allows them to exert leverage, keep wages low, and prevent unions from forming. They get help from the local police, who are called in because the local populace is up in arms about migrant disruption. Meanwhile business earns a tidy profit on its crops. It’s a sweet arrangement.

By this logic, the Alabama legislature made a mistake by taking its ideological stance seriously.  When it passed harsh legislation, it prompted immigrants, not to shut up and be obedient, but to leave the state.  The result, as another Times editorial notes, is that “even some of the law’s most enthusiastic supporters are beginning to acknowledge the law’s high economic cost.” One report has it that the move could devastate Alabama agriculture.

America’s dirty little secret (not that secret, actually) is that it needs undocumented workers to do the cheap work that no American wants to do. As in the Grapes of Wrath, it’s to the advantage of certain political and corporate forces to publicly rail against illegal aliens while privately allowing them to keep  working. For them, having the issue in a perpetual unsettled state is the ideal situation. But this works only as long as the ideologues don’t actually do what they say they want to do–or put another way, as long as they don’t seize control of the GOP and the state legislatures at the same time. In any event, sensible immigration legislation appears as though it will be a long time coming.

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