Agriculture and immigration policy
A hard row to hoe
Georgia’s immigration bill will hit farmers where it hurts
Jun 16th 2011 | ATLANTA | from the print edition
The war on onions 洋葱之战
ATLANTA may sprawl, but drive a little way south or east and head off the main highways, and you will see that what really powers Georgia is not its biggest city, but its farms. Agriculture is the state’s biggest industry, employing 13% of the state workforce, and generating $11 billion a year at the farm level and $69 billion overall. In 2008 Georgia produced more broiler chickens, peanuts, pecans, rye and spring-harvested onions than any other state.
Most of those onions were Vidalias—a sweet variety grown in the sandy, low-sulphur soil of south Georgia, and protected by federal trademark. And most Vidalias are harvested by hand, by workers such as Edilberto, who came north from Mexico to work in the fields. He has picked onions and other crops in south Georgia for 16 years. His three children were born here. And this summer he plans to leave Georgia to look for work in North Carolina. He will not be alone.
On July 1st Georgia’s new immigration law is scheduled to take effect. It empowers police to check the immigration status of criminal suspects. It requires employers with ten or more employees to check the immigration status of newly hired workers on a federal database (employers must currently verify that applicants possess the right documents; they do not have to verify the documents’ authenticity). Applicants for public benefits must provide “a secure and verifiable document” of identification and must swear that they are in the country legally.
Critics say the bill is unconstitutional, and indeed a federal judge will hear those charges on June 20th and may stop the law from taking effect. A federal judge blocked parts of Arizona’s anti-immigration law, which Georgia’s measure echoes, last year. But Matt Ramsey, one of the bill’s sponsors in Georgia’s legislature, maintains that “there is nothing in this bill that anyone here legally has to worry about.”
He may or may not be right, but as far as the state’s agriculture sector goes, it may not matter. Precise figures are hard to come by, but according to Erik Nicholson, national vice-president for the United Farm Workers’ union, as many as 70% of American agricultural workers may be undocumented. According to the Pew Hispanic Centre, in 2010 Georgia had around 425,000 such immigrants, putting it seventh among American states.
It may now have fewer: 46% of respondents to a recent survey conducted by the Georgia Agribusiness Council said they had too few workers. Some reported that workers had left or were planning to leave for other states by July 1st. And though that may be welcome news for politicians such as Mr Ramsey, it could portend disaster for farmers. According to Charles Hall, director of Georgia’s Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, harvest crews during the busy months of May and June had between half and two-thirds as many the workers they had last year. Migrant-worker crews follow the harvest north from Florida; this year many seem to be skipping Georgia. He estimates that the state’s $1.1-billion fruit-and-vegetable industry could suffer a $300m loss.
Nathan Deal, Georgia’s governor, who signed the immigration bill into law, came up with a novel solution on Tuesday: give the jobs—of which there are around 11,000, according to farmers who responded to a survey by Georgia’s agriculture department—to unemployed probationers. How that will work in practice remains unclear. Nobody can force farmers to hire felons. And people on probation must seek work but can decline job offers, such as those requiring hard physical labour in the sweltering midsummer. As for the departing workers, Bryan Tolar, who heads the Georgia Agribusiness Council, says, “I don’t know if they were legal. All I know is they were working.”