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Georgia’s Criminals to Replace Immigrant Farm Workers in Fields

Immigration Georgia
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's proposal to set unemployed probationers to harvesting is welcome among farmers, who are currently trying to bring in crops such as blackberries and peaches, Tolar said. Photographer: David Goldman/AP

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal wants criminals to pick berries and peaches because of a farm-labor shortage being blamed on the state’s new law cracking down on illegal immigrants.

A state survey released yesterday reported that more than 11,000 agricultural jobs stand vacant during the height of the state’s fruit and vegetable picking season. Some of Georgia’s 100,000 probationers, of whom 25 percent are unemployed, can help, he said.

“The agriculture industry is the No. 1 economic engine in Georgia,” Deal said in a prepared statement. “It is my sincere hope to find viable and law-abiding solutions to the current problem our farmers face.”

Georgia’s immigration law, signed by Deal on May 13, is among five such measures enacted nationally in the past year, against opposition from civil rights groups, farmers and other businesses that rely on immigrant labor. Alabama’s Governor Robert Bentley signed the fifth law June 9.

The laws follow one championed by Arizona’s Jan Brewer in requiring local authorities to identify illegal immigrants. They require employers to use the federal E-Verify database to check immigration status, and set penalties for transporting or otherwise helping illegal workers.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued to block Georgia’s law, scheduled to go into effect July 1.

Empty Fields

Farming is a $5.1 billion industry in Georgia, according to its Agriculture Department. About 28 percent of the state’s agricultural output in 2009 came from crops that require picking, according to a report from the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

The law’s impact on farm labor was swift, said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council in Atlanta, which opposed the immigration law.

“We have always had some challenges trying to find enough workers at the right times to harvest crops, but the drop-off we’ve seen this year compared to last year is unprecedented,” Tolar said in a telephone interview.

Migrant laborers are skipping the state out of fear, he said.

Deal’s proposal to set unemployed probationers to harvesting is welcome among farmers, who are currently trying to bring in crops such as blackberries and peaches, Tolar said. The peak picking season ends in early to mid-July, he said.

“The old phrase ‘die on the vine’ is what we’re looking at here,” Tolar said.

‘Stoned, Drunk or Pregnant’

Farmers ask little about workers’ background, he said. “If you’re strong enough to do this work, you’re good, as long as you don’t show up stoned or drunk or pregnant.”

He said the agriculture industry considered Georgia’s law hasty, and that farmers watched in amazement when Alabama passed its version after the impact on labor was evident.

“It was like, ‘Good Lord, you people can’t be helped. Have you all not been paying attention?’” Tolar said. “As we say in the South, bless their hearts.”

Georgia’s Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black will work to connect unemployed probationers with farmers who need labor, Deal said.

Those involved with probation are less pleased with the proposal than farmers, said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the Lexington, Kentucky-based American Probation and Parole Association. It’s a return to the days when convicts were sentenced to cultivate the land, he said in a telephone interview.

“In the old days, they had work farms,” he said.

The Georgia proposal will be of little help to probationers trying to improve their lives, he said, because the work is temporary.

“They’ll get no unemployment, no insurance and most of them aren’t going to be farm workers long term.”

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