Things might very well change in April, when the law’s E-Verify provision goes into effect, though Keith Smith seemed unfazed by the deadline. “It ain’t gon’ be worth shit for us,” he said. “It’s the same situation: There’s not enough people that’ll get out and do these jobs that you could run through E-Verify and get the results that you need.” Was he just going to ignore the law? “I don’t know,” he sighed. “I ain’t been complying with the law for years ’cause I haven’t been able to. What other option do you have when you ain’t got nobody else?”
And then, he clarified one of the most glaring but least considered faults of the unemployed citizen/undocumented immigrant conundrum: Smith has three year-round positions; the rest are seasonal, 8 to 10 weeks at most. “They help us when we’re planting, leave, go do something else, and they come back when we get ready to harvest. The legislators talk about putting these people that are laid off to work. Well, a person would be stupid to quit unemployment and come work for me for four or five weeks. You can’t blame ‘em.”
For now, the Smiths and Shorty and his two-man crew had their days full tending to chickens, repairing equipment, curing and shipping product, and trying to find 20 people just as good as the talent they’ve lost for the planting season in May. “I’ve talked with people I know in Florida and Mississippi,” Shorty said, “but no one wants to come here to work.”
If they do, chances are Smith will hire them, since he isn’t inclined to turn away good help where he can find it, documents be damned. “I can’t, unless they come and put me out of business.”
I shared with him what Shorty had said about sticking it out until his boss told him it was time to go. “I ain’t gonna kick him off,” Smith said. “They’ll have to come get him. I might go with him.”
The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute contributed additional support for this article, which ran in the March/April edition of the magazine under the headline “Help Not Wanted.”
Paul Reyes is the former editor at large of the Oxford American and currently is a contributing editor with Virginia Quarterly Review. His writing has appeared in several other publications, including Harper’s, the New York Times, and Men’s Vogue. He published his first book, Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida’s Great Recession, in 2010.