Controversy to the Max: Caught in Alabama’s Immigration Turmoil

It might seem hard to believe, but a flashpoint in Alabama’s current battle over a new law against illegal immigration is a Jewish deli.

The law in question, HB56, is being litigated now, but is seen as the strictest in the country. A provision that the government can not enter into a contract with illegal immigrants now means that those renewing a car tag or driver license have to demonstrate citizenship, which has led to outrageous lines in some counties. Many in the Hispanic community, assuming a wave of racial profiling whether they are legal or not, have already started leaving the state.

On Oct. 12, Steve Dubrinsky, owner of Max’s Deli in Birmingham, was quoted in the Birmingham News about how he was fearful of losing his nine-person kitchen staff, who are all legal immigrants from Mexico. There was an immediate backlash.

On his way to work, Dubrinsky was listening to Matt Murphy’s radio show, where callers were castigating Dubrinsky for supposedly employing illegals, and Murphy was challenging Dubrinsky on the legal status of his workers — figuring that if they are indeed legal, they have nothing to worry about. If they are concerned, he figured, they must be hiding something.

Some callers recommended a boycott of Max’s, and after some bloggers also got hold of the story, dozens of negative reviews of Max’s suddenly appeared online. “We got 90 negative reviews on Google in one day,” he said, along with hundreds of negative emails.

Over the next couple of days, Murphy and Dubrinsky went back and forth on the issue, with Murphy challenging Dubrinsky for documentation or at least to use e-Verify. Dubrinsky found out that e-Verify can not be used on current employees, nor is it legal to use it on potential employees until they are offered a job.

Many of the workers at Max’s came with Dubrinsky from a Mexican-themed restaurant he previously was involved with.

After a few days, Murphy said he was satisfied that Max’s workers are legal. He said he did not call for a boycott, though on his show he asked if Alabamians should boycott businesses that knowingly hire illegals. In general, though, he said boycotts aren’t done by conservatives and libertarians; they are the domain of “group-think” liberals.

There was a boycott in the state, though — on Oct. 12, the Hispanic community staged a walkout statewide to show their impact on the economy. Many places were closed for the day, but Dubrinsky said he convinced his staff to work lunch, then they closed early, at 5 p.m.

National and international coverage over the controversy exploded. The Huffington Post did an article on the difficulty Max’s is facing even with documented workers, and Dubrinsky was interviewed on NPR and Telemundo, among others. He was deluged with hundreds of emails of support from all over the world, and 300 friend requests on Facebook.

In one local article, Dubrinsky referred to Murphy as an “a—h—” for getting all this rolling, so on Oct. 27 Murphy said he would donate $100 to the Max’s Deli Brown Bag Project for Canterbury United Methodist Church if he could get through lunch there without anyone calling him that. Dubrinsky quipped “in fun” that he’d give $1 for each person who did. In all, eight did, which Murphy said was “a normal Thursday.” He still made the donation, which Dubrinsky matched.

Afterward, Murphy said the whole thing boiled down to “Good guy. Good food. Difference of position.”

Dubrinsky has few nice words for “lawmakers who created this… Why didn’t they think about” what would happen if 100,000 undocumented workers were suddenly pulled out of the state’s work force.

He’s not supporting illegal immigration, Dubrinksy stressed. “I don’t support this law. I support immigration reform.” Most people he speaks with are also in the middle — that something has to be done about illegal immigration, but this was not the way to fix it.

He is skeptical of claims that the immigrants are taking jobs away from citizens. He related a job offer he recently made to a woman who decided that her government benefits were more lucrative than a job at Max’s that pays above average for that position. Also, efforts to bring the unemployed into tomato fields to replace immigrants who disappeared have been a failure, with reports that as few as 1 in 50 are sticking with it for more than a few days.

A large disappointment, Dubrinsky said, is immigration is being talked about around the world when Alabama comes up — not the football team’s success, the state’s growing auto industry, cutting-edge AIDS research or any number of charitable efforts.