By Monique Fields
TUSCALOOSA, Ala (Reuters) - Nicolas Hernandez said goodbye to his parents just days after Alabama lawmakers passed what is being described as the country's toughest crackdown on illegal immigration.
His mother and father, undocumented workers at a farm near Birmingham, decided not to chance getting ensnared by the new law and returned to their home country of Argentina.
Hernandez, 25, said his family arrived in the United States 14 years ago on a three-year medical visa because doctors in their country could not treat his epilepsy, and then stayed after the visa expired.
"It's terrible. I hate it. It's tough because me and my family were always close," said Hernandez, who is engaged to a U.S. citizen and plans to stay in America.
How many others have decided to leave Alabama for other states or to return to their home countries before the new law takes effect on September 1 is unclear.
But legal and illegal immigrants have flocked to the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama requesting legal help, including parents who might need to return to their native countries and leave a child behind in the United States.
The group saw a surge in donations in June, with $2,000 coming in during a single week, said Caitlin Sandley, the lead organizer for HICA. The group usually receives $50 a week in donations from Hispanic supporters.
"Regardless of immigrant status, they are concerned about this law," she said.
Hispanic immigrants aren't the only people worried. Departing workers are feeding concern about potential labor shortages in agricultural hubs across the state, much like what farmers in Georgia complained of after a new immigration law passed there this spring.
Durbin Farms Market owner Danny Jones said he has lost workers in Chilton County in the central part of the state. He may not plant strawberries later this year as a result, forcing him to pay extra to buy them from fruit vendors.
"If you don't have labor to pick it, there's no point in planting it," Jones said.
LEGISLATORS FIRM ON LAW'S VALUE
State lawmakers said they drafted the legislation to protect American jobs.
"For illegal immigrants to now be leaving the state shows they know Alabama is serious about enforcing its laws," said Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
"Documented, legal residents of this country have no reason to leave on account of this law, and I've seen no evidence to suggest that's the case."
It has always been illegal to employ undocumented workers, no matter the industry. No legitimate business should depend on breaking the law in order to make a profit, Stacy said.
But Jones said immigrants are performing tasks white and black workers abandoned long ago.
He said he hopes a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups last week will provide some relief. Federal judges have blocked key parts of immigration laws in Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana from taking effect, and those opposing Alabama's law seek a similar ruling.
Some people also fear a possible shortage of construction workers just as a building moratorium is set to be lifted in August after four months of cleanup in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa.
"It's obvious that this population is much-needed, especially in this area as we rebuild," said Kip Tyner, a Tuscaloosa City Council member.
CHURCH LEADERS CONCERNED
Come September, it will be a crime in Alabama to transport, harbor or rent property to illegal immigrants.
Such provisions interfere with God's work, said Alabama Baptist Convention President Mike Shaw. Church members and clergy often give undocumented residents a lift to Sunday school, Bible study and other faith-based programs.
Social worker and Spanish translator Jennifer Owen said her livelihood is in jeopardy, and she will be among those who leave the state if the law stands.
Owen said she otherwise would be risking her well-being as well as those who accept a ride in her car.
"This definitely puts a hitch in everything I do," she said.
Owen was among more than 200 people who filled the parish hall last Sunday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Tuscaloosa to listen to an attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund provide information about the law and immigrant rights.
Ana Maria Morales, who came to Alabama from Mexico, also attended the meeting.
She said she applied for a green card five years ago but has yet to receive one. Soon after legislators passed the law in June, she said a social worker demanded to know whether she was legally in the state.
The MALDEF attorney told her and others that no one should ask them for proof before the law takes effect.
But Morales, speaking in halting English, said that while she would not leave the state, she also would not seek government assistance again any time soon.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)