From SavannahNow.com, Adam Van Brimmer, 5 Jan 2012.
Georgia’s immigration reform law cost the state’s farmers millions in its first year of existence but came with the “silver lining” of elevating the outcry for a more viable federal guest worker program, according to Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black.
Black discussed the results of his department’s recently released report on agricultural labor Thursday at the annual Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center.
The report, based on a survey of 800 Georgia farmers and agricultural industry leaders, focused on the impact of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, passed last May and enacted in July.
The survey found that 26 percent of respondents blamed an estimated $10 million in income losses in 2011 on a lack of available workers. Many of those participants specialized in crops that are largely harvested by hand, including cucumbers, peppers and tobacco.
A higher percentage – 56 percent – of respondents said they had difficulty hiring qualified workers and 53 percent said they had difficulty retaining qualified workers. Many tied the shortcomings to the passage of the immigration reform law.
Immigrant workers will do the physically demanding and difficult work U.S. citizens are unwilling to perform, a Vidalia onion grower in Collins said in his response to the survey.
The act drove more than 11,000 farmhands out of Georgia, according to state estimates, for fear of jail time or deportation.
“There’s the law and the fear of the law,” Black said. “Fear of the law disrupted business for many in our state.”
Georgia’s law and similar state reform acts have attracted federal attention, Black said. Bills that would overhaul the current federal guest worker initiative, known as the H-2A program, have been introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The H-2A program is plagued by strict eligibility, “onerous” paperwork and extraneous costs, such as providing housing for guest workers.
Only 33 of Georgia’s 4,000-plus agriculture producers participate in the H-2A program. Forty percent of Georgia producers are ineligible to hire H-2A workers, including those in the dairy, livestock, poultry and ginning industries.
“We’ve put duct tape on H-2A long enough,” Black said. “We need to get a new product.”
States are prohibited from creating their own guest work product. That ban led Black and his peers in the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to push for federal action.
Early returns have been encouraging. Congress is currently considering several guest worker bills, including the Better Agricultural Resources Now (BARN) Act, authored by Savannah Representative Jack Kingston, in the House; and the Helping Agriculture Receive Verifiable Employees Securely and Temporarily (HARVEST) Act, written by Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss and supported by fellow Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, in the Senate.
“Congress is the only one who can fix this,” Black said. “We have to have a legal workforce, and we need a system that works for all of us.”
Read the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s “Report on Agriculture Labor” at www.agr.georgia.gov/AgLaborReport.pdf