Just north of Florida in the farm fields of Georgia, the impact of the nation's illegal immigration debate is now taking shape. It's a stark reminder that when so-called solutions are fueled by partisan politics and raw emotion, the outcome is far from ideal.
Several states have passed laws cracking down on illegal immigrants, and all mandate that employers with more than 10 employees confirm potential workers' legal status using the federal E-Verify database. The new laws will have the most impact on agriculture — especially on labor-intensive fruit and vegetable crops that require many human hands and strong backs to harvest and pack. These crops also pay low piece wages.
In Georgia, we do not need to speculate about the outcome of these laws because enough time has passed for some harsh evidence to come in. The Georgia law, HB 87, which does not take effect until July 1, already has had an effect as farmworkers are staying away for fear of racial profiling. Workers caught with phony documents could be fined up to $250,000 and get 15 years in prison — the same sentence for murder in Georgia. The law also gives police, among other powers, authority to check the immigration status of criminal suspects.
Growers now are scrambling to find enough workers to keep their crops from withering on the vine and rotting on the ground. Each spring and early summer, thousands of undocumented workers, mainly from Florida, travel to Georgia and states further north to work. Charles Hall, executive director of Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, said farmers are finding only between 30 and 50 percent of the 11,000 farm hands needed to the harvest their crops, producing a labor shortage that will hit the industry with a loss of $250 million.
The shortage clearly puts the lie to the myth held by critics of U.S. farming practices that desperate unemployed U.S. citizens will do farm work if it is available to them. The Georgia Labor Department released a survey showing that unemployment in Irwin County, where blackberries are a major crop, is at 13 percent, yet very few people went to the fields. Of those who did, the overwhelming majority walked away.
R.T. Stanley Jr., who has grown prized Vidalia onions since 1970s, told National Public Radio recently that the law is ruining his business because average residents are not up to the demands of field work: "They just don't want to do this hard work. And they'll tell you right quick. I have 'em to come out and work for two hours and they say, 'I'm not doing this. It's too hard.' I got my livelihood on the line. If I don't harvest these onions, I'll lose my farm."
Florida's get-tough immigrant movement has not damaged agriculture's bottom line yet, but farm-worker advocates and many growers believe it is just a matter of time before conservative lawmakers get their way as they have in Alabama. There, lawmakers enacted the nation's strictest immigration law. It bans illegal immigrants from receiving any state or local public benefits, enrolling in or attending public colleges and seeking employment. It outlaws harboring and transporting illegal immigrants, renting them property or "knowingly" hiring them for any work.
Alabama legislators ignored an incontestable reality: The United States has an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants, mostly Hispanics in agriculture.
What do we do with them?
Imprison them? Send them en masse back to their native countries? Many of these hard-working people have been here 15 years or more. Many have children born here. These kids are U.S. citizens. What to do with these young citizens? Kick them out of school? Deny them health care?
Obviously, a newspaper columnist does not have all the answers. But I do know that the nation would be smart, and humane, to devise a way for hard-working illegal immigrants who pass background checks to begin a fair process of qualifying for legal status. This is not blanket amnesty. It is accepting reality for the greater good.
My hope is that my home state of Florida does not follow the unwise examples of Alabama, Arizona and Georgia.