From OnlineAthens.com, Blake Aued, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9 Oct 2011.
A state law cracking down on illegal immigrants led to a shortage of thousands of farm workers this summer and cost agriculture, Georgia’s largest industry, hundreds of millions of dollars, according to two studies released last week.
House Bill 87, which took effect July 1, requires employers to use a national database to confirm that employees can legally work in the U.S. and gives police authority to check the immigration status of people they arrest, though that portion of the law is not being enforced while it’s under review in federal court.
Farmers who grow the state’s seven largest crops — blueberries, blackberries, onions, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelon — needed 12,930 harvesters but could hire only 7,686, according to a University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development study commissioned by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
“We fell short, very short, of the number of skilled labor hands we had in the field previous years,” “““said Paul Bridges, the mayor of the South Georgia town of Uvalda and an opponent of the immigration law.
Farmers lost $140 million as a result of the labor shortage, which translates to a $391 million loss to the state’s overall economy and 3,260 lost jobs, the report said.
The Center for American Progress, the left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, found similar results. Georgia’s economy will lose $300 million to $1 billion because of the immigration law, according to a study by longtime journalist Tom Baxter.
“It has struck a blow to the agriculture industry in Georgia that is heavily reliant on migrant labor,” CAP Vice President Angela Kelley said.
The growers’ association found that 20 percent of berry farmers and 53 percent of vegetable farmers would plant fewer crops next year.
Many farmers are also switching from hand-picked crops like onions to machine-harvested ones like cotton and peanuts, Baxter said. But those crops are less lucrative, and the average farm that switches will lose $1.2 million, he said.
Neither study examined the poultry industry or other fields where Hispanic workers are common, such as restaurants and landscaping.
“Most of the workers in (the poultry) industry have papers,” Baxter said. “They’re here more or less permanently.”
In spite of the farm labor shortage, Hispanics in the Athens area don’t appear to be moving elsewhere as a result of the immigration law. One Hispanic leader said it hasn’t had an effect on the local community.
“People I know, they have not necessarily moved out of the state. Very few have,” said Sister Margarita Martin, a Catholic nun who runs a charity that caters to Hispanics in Northeastern Clarke County.
Gov. Nathan Deal tried to address the labor shortage by sending parolees into the fields, but not many were able or willing to do the work. Now state officials are talking about using prison labor to fill the gap.
Harvesters lift, bend and stoop 10 hours a day in 100-degree weather, so it’s not something the average person can do, said Charles Hall, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
“Field harvest work is skilled labor,” Hall said. “Anyone that has tried to pick blueberries, or cucumbers, or watermelons knows you have to have to have experience, plus be in top physical condition.”
The immigration law charged state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black with studying its impact on farms and issuing a report by Jan. 1. Black said he is surveying 20,000 farmers to prepare the report.
“It’s a volatile subject, but we’re going to stick to the facts,” he said. “I’m going to tell you what producers are telling me.”
During testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing last week, Black suggested that the federal government allow Georgia to run its own guest-worker program, which he said could solve the labor shortage by bringing more documented immigrants to the state on a temporary basis.
“It’s not amnesty or citizenship,” Black said. “It’s about trying to reform, retool or renovate the federal guest worker program. It’s essential, and we’ve needed to do it for at least 20 years.”
The federal program is too cumbersome to be useful, especially for small farmers, he said.
While Black acknowledges the labor shortage, some legislators don’t believe the immigration law is detrimental to farmers. State Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, said it includes “some pretty big loopholes for the agriculture industry.”
“I think the law we passed does a very good job of protecting migratory workers who work in agriculture,” he said.
Ginn said he doesn’t think any changes to the law are needed.