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Georgia immigration reform bill stresses growers

By Mike Pearson, For CNN
  • Georgia fruit and vegetable growers complain state immigration law is hurting them
  • More than 30 percent of needed field labor is bypassing the state, a growers' group says
  • The law allows police broader latitude to check immigration status
  • It also requires employers to use a federal verification system before hiring workers

Atlanta (CNN) -- It's as dependable as the turning of the seasons itself. Every spring, migrant workers -- many of them by all accounts illegal immigrants -- work their way north picking fruits and vegetables, first in Florida, then in Georgia, then farther north.

But this year, growers say, many of those workers are bypassing Georgia, concerned about provisions in a new state law that imposes tough penalties for using fake work documents and allows police broader latitude to check immigration status. The bill is modeled on similar, and controversial, legislation in Arizona.

The result, the growers say, is a scramble to get fruits and vegetables off the ground before they rot.

"The reports we're getting back from our growers is that they are getting between 30 and 50 percent of the work crews that they need to get the crops in," said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, which represents mostly medium- and large-size operations in the state's $1.1 billion fruit and vegetable business.

Growers say that the improving economy and a consequent slight rebound in construction could be siphoning some of the mostly Hispanic workforce they usually depend on. Some workers likely went home as the long recession dragged on, they say.

But the primary reason workers aren't coming to Georgia, growers say, is the legislation.

"I know a lot of crew leaders," said Jason Clark Berry of Blueberry Farms of Georgia. "Everyone I've talked to from Vidalia to Baxley, where my farm is, down through Homerville has said the exact same thing. People are afraid to come."

In response to growers' concerns, Gov. Nathan Deal sent a letter last week to the state's agriculture secretary, asking him to look into the shortage. Deal, who called the legislation a "responsible step forward in the absence of federal action" when he signed it this month, has not commented publicly on the inquiry. A spokeswoman said Tuesday she did not believe the inquiry and the legislation were linked.

In addition to the immigration-status checks, the law requires employers to participate in a federal work eligibility program and imposes penalties of up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for workers convicted of using faked documents to get a job.

Before passage of the legislation, agricultural interests and representatives of the state's hospitality industry said they feared the law would have wide-ranging economic impacts.

So far, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce says, the organization continues to hear concerns, but it has seen no verified reports of losses associated with the bill outside the agriculture industry.

But in the fruit and vegetable industry, the loss this season could total 25 percent to 30 percent of the annual take for such farms -- a cut of at least $250 million, Hall said.

Such a loss could force some already stressed small operators, especially those who focus on growing vegetables, out of business, he said. For others, it could mean a switch to row crops such as soybeans, which don't require field labor and aren't as affected by the legislation, he said.

It's unclear whether increased costs or lowered productivity being reported by producers will translate to higher prices for consumers.

Although Georgia growers say they comply with federal requirements to verify that workers are in the country legally and are eligible to work, they also acknowledge that much of their workforce is likely illegal and working on falsified documents.

More than half of seasonal agricultural workers in the United States are believed to be in the country illegally, according to the Immigration Policy Center and the United Farm Workers.

Hall said he doesn't know for sure, but has no reason to doubt such numbers are true in Georgia.

Growers are being "transparently hysterical," said D.A. King, an immigration reform advocate who worked closely on the legislation with its sponsor, state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City.

He believes growers simply don't want to pay the higher labor costs associated with hiring legal immigrants and said an "unlimited" supply of foreign workers is available through a federal agricultural visa program.

"If our bill has made Georgia less attractive to illegal labor, then it's a huge success," King said.

Growers say the federal visa program, called H2A, is unreliable, inflexible, imposes significant costs and is barely able to produce the 7,000 workers Hall said it brings to Georgia. The state needs at least 40,000 workers to harvest crops, he said.

Brent Brinkley, who owns a farm-supply business and grows cantaloupe in Pelham, Georgia, said he isn't opposed to ensuring workers are in the country legally. He just doesn't like that his competitors in Alabama and Tennessee aren't held to the same standards.

"I understand the reason the law was passed and you can argue it easily both ways," he said. "It would be selfish of me to say, 'Don't tighten up on immigration because it hurts my pocketbook.'"

But handling the issue on a state-by-state basis makes for an unfair playing field that gives some states unfair advantages, he said.

Proposed fixes have included repealing the law, reforming the federal visa program, and bringing in more domestic workers through the state Department of Labor.

For Berry, the blueberry grower, nothing being proposed now makes much sense. Local workers don't last long in the fields or don't produce much if they do, and fixing the agricultural visa program will take too long to salvage this year's crops.

"Basically, they're cutting off the only solution we have," Berry said. "There's got to be a better way."