By Kelli Dugan
MOBILE, Ala (Reuters) - A climate of fear and panic has taken hold in Alabama's immigrant community since a federal judge let stand much of the nation's toughest state crackdown on illegal immigration, advocates say.
Farm laborers have picked up their checks and headed out of town. Parents have pulled their children out of school or put in place emergency plans for their care should the parents be detained or deported for lacking proof of citizenship.
"People are just taking off without knowing where they are going," said Rosa Toussaint-Ortiz, co-chairwoman of the Hispanic/Latino Advisory Committee in Huntsville.
"They even own houses and are abandoning them. They are leaving their stuff behind."
Just how many immigrants are fleeing the state is unclear. The departures began soon after the law passed earlier this year, and advocates, educators and employers say they have seen an uptick since a September 28 court order that put into effect many of the challenged provisions.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn ruled that Alabama could authorize police to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.
The judge also upheld provisions requiring public schools to determine the legal residency of children upon enrollment and barring illegal immigrants from getting a driver's license or business license.
Lawmakers who backed the anti-illegal immigration measure, passed by large margins in both chambers of the Republican-led legislature, aren't surprised by the anecdotal evidence of its effect.
"The purpose of it was to cut back on the number of illegal immigrants that we have in Alabama, and obviously the law is doing that," said Republican Representative Mike Ball of Huntsville.
MIXED MESSAGES FOR STUDENTS
Ball said the outcry over the law's impact is overblown, particularly the argument by opponents that it will turn teachers into immigration officials.
He said the intent of the schools provision is to allow the state to collect statistics on the number of undocumented students, not to prevent them from enrolling or have authorities go after individual students or their parents.
"We just want to know how much it's costing us, and how many we have," Ball told Reuters.
School officials have appealed to Hispanic families to keep their children enrolled, and the message seems to have had some success.
The day after the court ruling, 2,454 Hispanic students were recorded absent, or about 7 percent of the 34,657 enrolled statewide, said Malissa Valdes, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education.
Since then, daily absences have dipped to an average of about 1,812 Hispanic students, compared to the 1,046 absences reported the day before the law took effect.
Valdes said official withdrawal figures won't be available until next week.
Jose, a 16-year-old undocumented student in Pelham, remains in school but worries about what might happen to him.
"Alabama makes me live in fear. If mom drives me to school, a policeman could arrest me just because of the color of my skin," the Mexican-born Jose said on Wednesday. "I have to be afraid of my teachers, the people I look up to."
The Obama administration has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, to block the immigration law while it is being appealed.
In a court filing on Tuesday, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange argued against halting the law. He said illegal immigrants take jobs away from legal residents, utilize the state's public resources without paying taxes and form "a substantial part" of the state's prison population.
There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States, including between 75,000 and 160,000 in Alabama, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
FARM WORKERS VANISH
As the court battle continues, some Alabama employers have reported a dwindling labor force.
Many companies are losing legal workers because a family member is in the country illegally, making it almost impossible to gauge the law's direct impact on subcontractors and the construction industry, said Kerrick Whisenant, president of the American Subcontractors Association and an Alabama resident.
"The truth of what's happening here is we're losing some really good people because Grandma lives with them, and she can't leave the house. I don't think anybody blames them for not feeling welcome," he said.
Jerry Spencer, who founded Birmingham-based Grow Alabama, which works to distribute locally grown food from a network of more than 200 independent farmers, estimates tens of thousands of Hispanic farm workers have fled.
Spencer said the majority of those workers were undocumented, but some legal workers also moved away to avoid the "hassle" the law has created for them, leaving tomato and sweet potato farmers short-handed in the midst of harvest.
"What we've got left is about 10 percent of who was there," he said.
To help farmers cope, Spencer has been rounding up unemployed laborers willing to work the fields. He said those efforts in Birmingham have attracted a lot of interest, but the shift in group dynamics is creating problems in some spots.
"There's a fair amount of reticence on the part of farmers to take the city folk and unemployed workers," Spencer said.
"They really hate letting go of their amigos because they're so problem-free. They don't squabble with one another on the job, and they have inherent respect and honor for the oldest (worker) on the job."
No law is perfect, Representative Ball said. However, he thinks the vanishing work force of illegal immigrants could be a boon for unemployed, legal residents of Alabama.
"We do have a lot of people that want these jobs and want to work," he said. "Our unemployment rate is driven by the very people who are competing with the illegal immigrants for those jobs."
(Additional reporting by Verna Gates; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jerry Norton)