From Blogs.AJC.com, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jim Galloway, 6 Oct 2011.
You can’t begin to assess the importance of what state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a U.S. Senate chamber this week without first flashing back to 2007.
That spring, U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson were in the midst of negotiations with the George W. Bush administration in an attempt to forge a bipartisan deal on immigration.
In Columbus, before the state GOP convention, Chambliss — as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee — explained what was up. “We’ve got to face the fact that we’ve got to create a new, truly temporary worker program,” Chambliss said.
A shower of boos began, but the senator plowed on. “For that segment of our economy that need temporary workers,” Chambliss finished.
With that rebuke, illegal immigration became a driving litmus issue in the Georgia Republican party — the equal of gay marriage or abortion. Any appetite for a bipartisan deal in Washington evaporated.
Law after law passed the state Legislature. Much of it was window-dressing, until this year, when Republican lawmakers coalesced behind HB 87, a bill that empowered law enforcement officers to quiz individuals they stop about their citizenship and required businesses to use a federal database to screen out hires who are here illegally.
Farmers warned that the measure would strip them of the labor they needed to bring their crops in. Some lawmakers assured agriculturalists that — in this economy — local workers could surely be found. Others said that, regardless of the consequences, it was more important to enforce the law.
Gov. Nathan Deal signed HB 87 into law. And perhaps 40 percent of Georgia’s crop-picking force disappeared.
In Washington on Tuesday, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner — Black was elected last year, and is the first Republican ever to hold the post — explained to a panel of U.S. senators what he has done to cope.
Black worked with the state labor commissioner to send the unemployed into the fields. “Even with unemployment rates hovering around 10 percent, this task was not as easy as it would seem,” he testified.
Black worked with prison officials to ship probationers to farmers in need, and cited the experience of a cucumber grower. “Out of 104 probation workers, this farmer eventually found 15 to 20 reliable workers,” Black said.
The prison system next intends to offer a tax credit to farmers who hire exiting, non-violent offenders.
But none of that will be enough to dig out Vidalia onions, toss watermelons into the back of a truck, pluck the blueberry bushes or pick the bell peppers.
The federal H2A guest worker program — which farmers are pointed to in lieu of hiring illegal workers — should be overhauled, if not scrapped, Black said. Senators should consider, the agriculture commissioner said, a program that issued work permits to illegal immigrants — “offenders” was Black’s exact term — already in the country.
Financial penalties could be assessed — up front, and then annually — as punishment for the flouting of U.S. residency laws.
In other words, we have circled back to the point that Chambliss made four years ago — about the need for steady supply of foreign laborers in Georgia.
“One of the discussions we have to have is, do we want to have our food produced here or somewhere else? I don’t think Wal-Mart is going to cease to carry cucumbers. I think they’re going to get them somewhere,” Black said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The state agriculture commissioner is walking a fine line. “Let me be clear. My position from a standpoint of amnesty and pathways to citizenship has not changed one iota,” he said.
Nor has Black renounced HB 87. Rather, state efforts to enforce federal immigration laws — blocked as a consequence of lawsuits — have contributed to “a sea change” in Washington’s attitude, he said.
“Without HB 87 and some of the other proposals, I don’t know that we’d be having this discussion about changing the guest-worker program,” Black said.
But another factor in the shifting of tides are the hard numbers rolling in. Georgia’s economy is poised to take a $391 million hit and shed about 3,260 jobs this year because of farm-labor shortages, according to a report released by the state’s agricultural industry — while Black was in Washington.
In the middle of the largest downturn Georgia has seen since the Great Depression, it is possible that some people are rethinking the wisdom of slapping around our largest industry.
Also testifying with Black Tuesday was Connie Horner, who manages a family-owned, organic blueberry farm down in Homerville. She told of hiring 67 workers in 2006, only to find that 80 percent of them were probably illegal.
In 2007, 2008 and 2009, Horner tried to work through the federal H2A program — which sent her too few workers. Who were often inexperienced or had criminal records. She and her family now talk of downsizing their operation.
“Farmers don’t want to get into a debate about citizenship or amnesty. That’s making the solution more difficult than the problem. There’s just one thing they want — someone who can get into the system as authorized to work,” Horner said Wednesday.
– By Jim Galloway, Political Insider