SUMMARY: Even Marsh’s own staff acknowledge that their estimate is built on anecdotal evidence. Some of those anecdotes check out, and others don’t. But even when they do check out, the anecdotes don’t add up to a slam-dunk case that the law has turned the economy around. After all, the law has been in effect for a little more than a week.
ANALYSIS: It takes a while for the number-crunchers to turn economic data around. For instance, when politicians talk about the state’s current unemployment rate, they’re really talking about the unemployment rate in August. The Alabama Department of Industrial Relations releases unemployment data on the third Friday of every month, which means we won’t have September’s jobless numbers for another 15 days, and we won’t have October’s numbers until just before Thanksgiving. Those numbers –- the Thanksgiving numbers –- would be the first to show what Alabama’s jobless rate looks like now that the immigration law is in effect.
But Marsh’s column implies that the law’s passage alone affected the economy, even before the law went into effect.
Derek Trotter, communications director for Marsh’s office, acknowledged that the data in Marsh’s column was the best evidence he had, so far, for the argument that the immigration law is improving the economy.
“What we have is what you see in the column,” he said. “It is anecdotal, but it makes a good case.”
The Star investigated each piece of anecdotal evidence, one by one, to see if Marsh’s assertions were accurate.
Has the illegal immigrant population quadrupled in the last 10 years?
TRUTH RATING: 5 of 5
Marsh opened the column with the statement that “Over the past decade, Alabama’s illegal immigrant population has increased by nearly 400 percent.”
This claim is as true as any claim about illegal immigrant numbers can claim to be -– though that isn’t saying a whole lot.
For obvious reasons, undocumented immigrants are difficult to count. Fearing deportation if they’re caught without papers, undocumented residents tend not to talk to census takers, which is why the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t have hard numbers on illegal immigrants. Census officials usually refer reporters to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit that has perhaps the most respected estimates on illegal immigrant numbers –- though those estimates tend to be pretty fuzzy. In 2010, for instance, Pew estimated that between 95,000 and 170,000 people were living in Alabama illegally. That’s a wide margin of error.
But Pew’s numbers also indicate that about 25,000 illegal immigrants were living in the state in 2000. Using the low end of Pew’s 2010 numbers, that comes out a 10-year increase of about 400 percent.
Are there 5,300 unemployed people in immigrant-heavy fields in Alabama?
TRUTH RATING: 5 of 5
Marsh’s column states that in July, there were “more than 5,300 Alabamians receiving unemployment benefits who are seeking employment in immigrant-heavy fields.”
Marsh and his staff seem to have done their homework on this one. Asked to support the claim, Trotter produced figures from the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations that show 5,355 people seeking work in mostly entry-level positions in construction and agriculture as of July 25.
The bulk of those jobseekers were in construction – roofer’s helpers, carpenter’s assistants, general construction laborers and so on.
What’s not so clear is whether there are actual jobs waiting for those workers.
“New home construction right now is the lowest it’s been since the early 1980’s,” said Russell Davis, executive vice president of the Alabama Homebuilders Association.
Davis said some areas have seen a spike in construction due to rebuilding after the April 27 tornadoes –- but he doesn’t see that construction as a huge overall gain. However, Davis said the new law does seem to have produced an “exodus” among immigrant laborers -– legal and illegal –- which would, presumably, open positions up to non-immigrant workers.
“I don’t have numbers, but there’s some anecdotal evidence,” he said. “I’m hearing from contractors who had six people on a crew, let’s say, and now they’ve got four.”
Is unemployment down in Marshall County thanks to the immigration law?
TRUTH RATING: 3 of 5
“Just north of here in Marshall County, which had a large immigrant population before the law took effect, the unemployment rate has actually gone down since the law was signed,” Marsh wrote in his column.
In June, when the bill was signed, unemployment in Marshall County was at 10 percent. In August, the last month for which figures are available, unemployment was 8.7 percent.
But that’s not the whole story.
The same drop happened from June to August of 2010, and in many years before. That’s because the state’s official county-by-county unemployment numbers are not seasonally adjusted. Some times of year produce more jobs than others, so there’s a cyclical ebb and flow of jobs even in a good year. December is typically the month with the lowest unemployment, because stores hire extra workers to deal with the Christmas rush.
“June is typically the highest month for unemployment,” said Tara Hutchison, spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, which tracks joblessness in the state.
Hutchison said the end of the school year -– with high school graduates and pink-slipped teachers competing with other jobseekers –- drives unemployment numbers up.
Hutchison was quick to point out that the seasonal shift doesn’t mean the immigration law had no impact. In fact, she said, it’s too early to tell.
“There are a lot of factors that could some into play here,” she said. “A single business opening or closing could impact the numbers.”
Marshall County’s unemployment for August 2011 is actually half a percent higher than the 8.2 percent the county posted in August 2010.
And the state’s unemployment rate, which is seasonally adjusted, was the same in August as it was in June – 9.9 percent.
Are inmates doing jobs once done by undocumented immigrants?
TRUTH RATING: 1 of 5
“The director of the Decatur Work Release Facility in Morgan County says the law is already having an impact on unemployment in the community,” Marsh wrote in his column. Marsh quoted Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, as saying 200 work-release inmates had been put to work in the area since the bill was signed.
It’s rare for a mention of inmate labor to find its way into a discussion about the overall economy. After all, inmates don’t draw unemployment benefits, which means they’re not counted in overall jobless figures. And the implied image -– Alabama replacing immigrant labor with fields full of prisoners -– may do little to quell critics’ concerns, or to repair the state’s chain-gang image.
Trotter said Marsh’s staff included the number because it’s an indicator of rising demand in the job market.
“Hiring from work release is a temporary solution, until you can get permanent employees into these positions,” he said.
But Marsh’s numbers are wrong.
According to data from the Alabama Department of Corrections, the Decatur work-release facility had 283 inmates placed in jobs in June, 316 in July, 230 in August and 239 in September. That means there are 44 fewer inmates at work in Morgan County than when the immigration bill was signed.
Not that that means anything. Department spokesman Brian Corbett said the fluctuations in Morgan County’s inmate employment numbers are not uncommon. Corbett said there has been a slight rise in use of inmate labor statewide in the past few months, but there’s no evidence that rise is linked to the immigration bill.
Corbett noted that while some inmates do work in immigrant-heavy fields such as agriculture, many go to work in other sectors of the economy, such as food service, the motel business and even newspapers.
“Just about any sort of free-world job can be a work-release job,” he said.
Corbett said he had no idea where Marsh got the figure he quoted in the column.
“We’ve never quoted any number except the ones I just gave you,” he said.
The Star tried to contact the warden at the Decatur facility, but staff at the facility referred all questions to Corbett.