From AgriView.com, Jeffrey Hoffelt, Livestock Editor, 5 Jan 2012.
Earlier this year, Georgia representatives passed legislation that significantly impacted the state’s agriculture industry. The restrictive immigration policy was one of the first regional reform documents-and many southern dairy producers believe that it sent the state down the wrong path.
Of those opinion leaders, Everett Williams, owner of a 1,200-cow operation called WDairy, LLC, is one of the most vocal. As the president of the Georgia Milk Producers, Inc., his concerns represent many of the 255 dairy producers in that state. The group is adamant in their stance that the program’s mandate of the e-verify program was detrimental to their industry.
“When the law was passed, it caused immigrant workers to run and crops to rot in the fields,” he says. “It’s been a big problem in Georgia.”
The law Williams references is Georgia’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act (HB 87). Passed by the state’s general assembly last spring and signed into law in May, the regulation mandates that employers must comply with the federal e-verify program if they employ more than 11 workers.
The law’s goal is to prevent undocumented immigrant workers from entering the state’s workforce. In fact, under the bill, any person knowingly submitting counterfeit or fictitious identifying information for the purpose of obtaining employment can be charged with “aggravated identity fraud” and punished with up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Most notably, HB 87 included a pair of policing provisions: 1. Any person who knowingly conceals, transports or harbors an illegal alien and commits another criminal offense could be charged and sentenced to a year in prison and face a $1,000 fine. (A person who legally hired an illegal alien unknowingly is exempt from this provision.); 2. During any investigation into such suspect by a police officer, when such officer has a probable cause, the officer shall be authorized to seek to verify immigration status.
“When this act was started, there was a lot of concern over what was going on and what would happen to immigrant workers and the workforce,” Williams remembers. “The proposal created a lot of problems when it first came out, because no immigrants-whether legal or illegal-wanted to be subject to the law. A lot of immigrants in my area went to other states to find work rather than be assumed guilty under this law.”
Williams adds that the signing of the law gave state and local enforcement authorities increased power to racial profile.
The commotion resulted in a federal court injunction to the rule shortly after it was signed into law. The federal order stopped the provisions from being enforced for the time being but no further action has yet to be taken.
The injunctions to HB 87 curtailed such behavior, William indicates, but measurable damage to the migrant workforce had already occurred.
With hopes that the migrant workers’ jobs would be filled by unemployed Georgia citizens, the state politicians called for the Georgia Department of Agriculture to study the implications of the bill. The results of that study-which Williams says show the problems caused by the law-will be presented to the Georgia General Assembly in early 2012.
The study shows that, immediately after HB 87 was filed, workers fled Georgia in fear of being imprisoned. The positions left by the immigrants were unable to be filled and the Georgia Agribusiness Council, therefore, reported labor shortages with up to 11,000 positions going unfilled in June.
Williams says that the state’s governor tried filling the agricultural jobs with probationers. Reports from producers using probationers showed that most of the employees left fields on the first day indicating that they were unable to take the heat or physical requirements of the job.
All told, the Georgia Agribusiness Council estimates that the enforcement of HB 87 resulted in a loss of $300 million.
The University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness also completed a survey analyzing data from seven crops representing 46.4 percent of acreage available for harvest in the state this spring.
The survey represented a total farm gate value for more than $578 million in 2009. Growers surveyed reported they experienced labor losses in the spring and summer of 2011 that represented over 80 percent of their production acreage.
“The bottom line is that the crops just rotted in the fields; there was not anybody there to get them out,” Williams says in dismay.
The losses recorded in the survey for each crop in spring/summer 2011 totaled close to $75 million. Broken by commodity, the largest measurable economic losses were: blueberries: $29,015,947; blackberries: $4,027,125; Vidalia onions: $16,312,345; bell pepper: $15,115,645; squash: $1,948,629; cucumber: $5,932,600; and watermelon: $2,592,230.
“The total loss once the data is extrapolated out for all the producers that did not participate is estimated at approximately $140 million on these seven crops,” Williams says.
In a normal year, the growers surveyed estimated a need of 12,903 harvesters. In 2011, surveyed growers reported a labor shortage of 40.4 percent-needing 5,244 more harvesters to fill their need.
“It became obvious when this house bill started being talked about in the legislature that we didn’t have enough information to estimate the impact before the changes were made,” Williams says.
To better understand the impact of migrant workers on the dairy industry, the Georgia Milk Producers, Inc. then conducted an industry survey of their members this summer.
Of the 255 dairies in Georgia (80,000 cows total), 75 producers participated in the survey, representing 51,114 milking cows.
The survey results showed that immigrant employee wages on Georgia dairies range from $300 to $1,200 per week with a $650 per week average.
“The survey busts the myth that immigrant workers are employed because they can be paid less,” Williams explains. “The workers were paid competitive wages. A lot of times, dairymen also provided housing for the employees that’s not included in these figures.”
The participants also responded with how many immigrant workers are employed on their operations: 27 dairies said zero; 23 dairies had one to three immigrant employees; 11 dairies had four to seven immigrant employees; and 14 dairies had eight or more immigrant employees. The operations that employed immigrant workers represented 46,377 head of cattle or 91 percent of the cattle involved with the survey.
When asked if they were able to find non-immigrant replacements to fill open positions on their operation, 40 producers answered affirmatively while 35 producers said no.
“A lot of the comments were that the quality of employees was going down since the rule took effect and that they spent a whole lot more time searching to fill positions,” Williams says.
Bringing it home, the producers were asked if they could continue to operate their operations without immigrant workers. Operations representing 87 percent of the cattle in the state said that they could not.
“The bottom line is that dairies with 87 percent of the cows say they cannot operate without immigrant workers,” Williams emphasizes. “This is something we need to educate the public on: you may do away with workers, but you’ll do away with the industry in the process. Some industries just will not exist without immigrant workers.”