H-2A, Immigration, Labor, Opinion/Editorial/Commentary, Undocumented Workers

Editorial: We Still Ignore Basic Tensions in Immigration Policy

From Blogs.AJC.com, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jay Bookman, 10 Oct 2011.

You have to feel sorry for Gary Black, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner.

Black’s job is to serve as a spokesman for and defender of agriculture, one of the state’s most important industries. And as someone who knows the industry well, Black knows the destructive impact that House Bill 87 has had on Georgia farmers. The law has scared off thousands of illegal immigrants needed to plant, tend and harvest crops in Georgia, and in many cases has forced farmers to leave crops in the field to rot.

In fact, a study released last week by the University of Georgia puts the potential economic cost at almost $400 million, with 3,000 jobs perhaps lost.

That puts Black in a bit of a pickle. As a Republican, he can’t be seen questioning a bill embraced by the state GOP as one of its proudest accomplishments. So while he argues passionately that agriculture is suffering a serious worker shortage, he is careful to never attribute that shortage to HB 87.

I don’t blame him. The law is on the books, and ,short of a court ruling, it’s going to stay there. So rather than commit political suicide, Black has decided to help Georgia farmers adapt to the law with the least damage possible to their businesses and to his own career.

That too creates dilemmas. Earlier this week, Black was in Washington to plead to Congress to improve the federal H-2A program, which imports temporary guest workers to perform farm work. Georgia farmers complain that the program is unwieldy, inflexible and unreliable in producing the required workforce, and I’m sure that’s all true.

I’m much less sure that can change a great deal. Before it can import guest workers, the program is required to take extensive steps to ensure that American workers are not being displaced. The federal government is also required to screen potential workers in their country of origin before they are allowed to come to this country, and to monitor those who do enter our borders.
While improvements can be made, expecting a government program to carry out those complex duties quickly, flexibly and cheaply while producing tens of thousands of temporary workers a year is probably expecting too much.

In addition, the program would have to be scaled up significantly in the wake of HB 87 and similar laws in other states. Nationwide, the current program produces some 30,000 agricultural workers. The worker shortfall in Georgia alone has been estimated by Black’s agency at 11,000.

Perhaps recognizing that H-2A cannot be the sole answer, Black has also proposed a more controversial approach. He suggests that immigrants already in this country illegally be given the right to remain under the condition that they work only in agriculture, that they acquire a fool-proof government identity card and pay a financial fine.

Recognizing the political dynamite in such a proposal, Black stresses repeatedly that it is not an amnesty program and isn’t a path to citizenship.

However, I don’t think that gets him past the “What-part-of-‘illegal’-don’t-you-understand?” question. In addition, the illegal immigrants who agree to those conditions would in effect become a permanent underclass, suitable only to work in the field doing the work that Americans feel is beneath them, and forbidden to have higher ambitions.

In effect, the debate has circled back around to the beginning, with the tension between wanting illegal labor but not their persons still unresolved.

Source: Blogs.AJC.com, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We still ignore basic tensions in immigration policy” by Jay Bookman, 10 Oct 2011.

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