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Immigration Laws Crippling Farms In Indiana and Georgia

by David Cornwell

Farm Labor: Undocumented farm workers often do work others declineFor Indiana and Georgia farmers, it’s not a matter of who’s right and wrong in the debate behind tough new immigration laws that took effect July 1, but of those laws essentially biting the hands that help feed them.

While federal judges have blocked key provisions of those and similar laws in other states, requirements that employers check the immigration status of workers remain intact, and according to farmers, that has created an exodus of migrant farmhands critical to their subsistence.

“I got my livelihood on the line,” says R.T. Stanely Jr. of Vidalia, GA, where he grows 1,000 acres of the state’s official vegetable, the Vidalia onion. “If I don’t harvest these onions, I’ll lose my farm.” It’s a sentiment echoed across the state by farmers who face hefty civil penalties and even criminal prosecution for violating the law.

According to the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, the farmer’s claims of economic loss aren’t just hyperbole. In a report released earlier this month, the Center said farmers of the state’s seven largest crops — onions, watermelons, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, blueberries and blackberries — reported shortages of almost 6,000 workers this spring as immigrants fled the state with the bill’s April passage. The estimated loss to farmers has been $140 million so far, with the ripple affect on local and state economies estimated at $390 million. The Georgia Department of Agriculture estimates the worker shortage has now grown to 11,000.

While agricultural specific figures aren’t available in Indiana, a report by the Perryman Group predicts a cost to that state of $2.8 billion and more than 16,000 jobs lost if all of the estimated 47,000 unauthorized immigrants in the state were removed. In Georgia, Perryman figures stand at a staggering $21 billion and 132,000 jobs lost. That report looks at the extended impact of a labor shortage. A halt in construction, for instance, would affect manufacturers of building supplies, interior design services, and sales of appliances and other consumer goods. The subsequent impact on those businesses would in turn affect the demand for other goods and services.

“We’re just sticking our head in the sand if we don’t recognize that immigrant labor and descendants have always been a big part of the agricultural labor supply,” says Indiana Farm Bureau spokesman Kent Yeager. Until we come up with a way to solve this at the federal level, everything else will be inadequate.

Indeed, at the heart of much of the debate over state immigration laws is whether immigration is a state issue at all, with some provisions blocked as unlawfully interfering with federal authority over immigration matters. Many expect the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately decide the fate of such legislation.

Proponents of the legislation, however, argue that the issue is very much a state matter and that farmer’s losses are small compared to the cost of illegal immigration to state economies.

“It’s not just an immigration issue,” says Georgia State Rep. Matt Ramsey who sponsored the bill. “It’s a school issue. It’s a transportation issue. It’s a health care issue. ” Some studies place the economic cost of illegal immigrants in Georgia as high as $1.6 billion annually.

While complaints are plentiful, solutions are not. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has sent parolees into the fields and offered non-violent inmates the opportunity to sign up for agricultural work release programs. Many, however, have been unable or unwilling to do the work.

“They just don’t want to do this hard work. And they’ll tell you right quick,” onion farmer Stanley says of the locals he’s tried to hire. “I have ’em to come out and work for two hours and they said, ‘I’m not doing this. It’s too hard.’ ”

Testifying before the U.S. Senate, Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has suggested the federal government allow the state to run its own guest worker program to help bring more documented immigrants from Mexico to the state on a temporary basis.

While a federal guest worker program has existed for years, it has been less than successful because of the massive amount of paperwork required, delays in getting workers when and where they are needed, and regulations that require farmers to pay as much as $2 more an hour than prevailing wages.

For Georgia farmers, the only certainty of the immediate future is uncertainty, with many planning to plant fewer crops next year and others switching from hand-picked to less lucrative machine-harvested crops like cotton and peanuts.

“We’ve invested our time and our effort into growing our companies,” says farmer Aries Haygood. “And then all of a sudden something like this could put this industry out of business, overnight.”

About The Author

David Cornwell

David Cornwell is a freelance writer living in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as the director of North Carolina Mental Hope, a mental health advocacy nonprofit.