Convicts or Illegals: Georgia Hunts for Farmworkers As Tough Immigration Law Takes Hold

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David Goldman / AP

Fieldworkers pick onion bulbs on a Vidalia onion farm in Lyons, Georgia, May 10, 2011.

As a gubernatorial candidate last summer, Georgia Republican Nathan Deal boasted of having backed (as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) measures to bar undocumented immigrants from federal health care, and public colleges. He supported a bill that, starting July 1, will become one of America's most punitive state immigration laws. And now he has released a report indicating that Georgia's largest industry, agriculture, suddenly has 11,000 openings — which, he suggested, should be filled with some of the state's 100,000 ex-convicts, about 25% of whom are unemployed.

Deal's proposal comes weeks before Georgia's new immigration law is scheduled to go into effect. The law will require businesses to use a federal electronic system to verify employees' citizenship status and, among other things, empower local law enforcement authorities to arrest undocumented immigrants. In many ways, Georgia's law mirrors other aggressive measures in Arizona and Utah and comes as the Obama Administration heightens its prosecution of businesses believed to have hired illegal immigrants.

Even before it goes into effect, business leaders say Georgia's law is crippling the state's core agriculture industry: Migrant workers have started fleeing to nearby states, particularly North Carolina and Florida. Says Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council: "What we have here is the equivalent of a giant scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield."

Predictably, farmers have coldly received Deal's suggestion that non-violent ex-offenders be hired. "Let them in the governor's mansion, to be cooks," sixth-generation blackberry farmer Gary Paulk says, "and I'll let them on my farm. I want my family to be as safe as the governor's."

To understand what's at stake for business, consider Paulk's situation. In recent weeks, one-third of his 300 field workers have fled. His request for state temporary workers hasn't been answered. Now, Paulk expects to abandon about 25% of his 125 acres, at a projected loss of $250,000 this season. To lure workers, he has raised the price he pays for every box of blackberry picked by about 15%, to $3.50. But he hasn't been able to pass that higher cost onto suppliers. There are few places to shave costs, either: blackberry picking is typically done by hand. "We've gone into survival mode," he says

The labor shortage may drive up food costs, especially for peaches, onions and chicken, which Georgia produces in abundance. There is anecdotal evidence that states' new immigration policies is forcing farmers to eschew labor-intensive crops such as blackberries for wheat and corn, which can be harvested by machine. Certain crops, like lettuce, will be increasingly sourced not from leading U.S. producers like Yuma, Ariz., but Mexico. The labor shortage could result in as much as $9 billion in lost farm production annually. "This is the magnitude of the risk to the sector, if we can't get the labor we need," says Paul Schlegel, director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, in Washington. "It's an extremely important issue."

Such exclusive policies may have long-term negative consequences, especially for Republicans, given the South's shifting demographics. In the last decade, Georgia's Latino population has more than doubled to 800,000 — but of course, that isn't a complete count. Latinos account for about 6.8% of the state's eligible voters, and that will only grow in the coming years. Here's why: Deal's former Congressional district includes the city of Dalton (pop. 33,604), the world's carpet capital, whose public school system is now 68% Latino.

The law is already putting historically-business minded Republicans in a bind. Paulk, for instance, chaired Deal's gubernatorial campaign effort in Irwin County, in Southeast Georgia. He overlooked Deal's backing of the law. "It's appalling, because they didn't think through the implications, at the farm level," he says. "It's like a witch hunt that tells immigrants: 'we want you gone.'"

In the coming days, a U.S. judge is expected to rule on a challenge to the Georgia's immigration law. So far, few farmers appear to have taken Deal's suggestion to hire probationers. Nevertheless, Deal says, "I believe this would be a great partial solution."