Alabama's new immigration enforcement law has caused undocumented workers to move to Florida. (Photo by Scott Robertson/Coalition of Immokalee Workers.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

After experiencing domestic out-migration for the first time in its history,  Florida may finally be attracting folks from other states to move here.

More snowbirds from New York? Disenchanted Beltway residents?


Laborers from Alabama.

For more than a month, news outlets have been reporting an influx of undocumented workers moving to Florida from Alabama as a result of a newly passed state law that is the harshest immigration enforcement measure in the country. Entire communities packed up overnight and moved on.

The law requires police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they pull over, detain or arrest if they suspect that person might be here without papers. If they can’t produce papers, they’re taken in.

It also makes educators accumulate immigration information on students, which has had a chilling effect on Hispanic schoolchildren of Alabama — even if they are American-born and perfectly entitled to public education. That’s because many families are “mixed,” which means the children were born in the United States (and are citizens) while their parents are undocumented and not here legally. The first schoolday after the law went into effect, 2,000 Hispanic children were missing from their classes.

The Alabama law is the poster legislation for all the things that are wrong — and, its proponents would argue, that are right — about setting immigration enforcement policy on a state-by-state basis.

“[It’s] piecemeal reform undertaken at the state level with different states doing different things, making it harder for employers to hire illegal immigrants,” said Gordon Hanson, an economist specializing in the impacts of immigration at the University of California-San Diego.

The state-by-state approach causes displacement, uncertainty and economic upheaval.

Outcomes that are actually embraced by advocates of the tighter laws.

“Those are the intended consequences of Alabama’s legislation with respect to illegal aliens,” U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama told Politico. “We don’t have the money in America to keep paying for the education of everybody else’s children from around the world. We simply don’t have the financial resources to do that. Second, with respect to illegal aliens who are now leaving jobs in Alabama, that’s exactly what we want.”

Immigration is so complicated and entwined through so many parts of our society that every law has multitudes of both intended and unintended consequences. And even the intended conseqences — such as creating more jobs for U.S.-born workers — often don’t have the desired effect.

“Since this law went in to effect, I’ve had a total 11 people that were Americans come and ask for work,” Alabama tomato farmer Jamie Boatwright told NPR. “A total of one of those actually came back the next day.”

Boatwright said that the worker picked about four boxes of tomatoes before leaving the field and quitting.

“There is a lot of heavy lifting and manual labor, and you are out there in the sun and the rain. It is just not attractive to Americans,” Mac Higginbotham, an official with the Alabama Farmers Federation, told the Washington Post.

Higginbotham said he knows of some Alabama tomato farmers who lost between 40 and 60 percent of their crop because they couldn’t find people to pick them.

When every state begins creating their own immigration legislation, one state’s unintended consequences becomes its neighbors’ unanticipated complication.

Or, if the neighbor recognizes the opportunity, perhaps an unexpected human windfall.