Where have Georgia's immigrant workers gone?

Echoing Arizona, Georgia passed a tough immigrant law. Now it finds itself desperately short of farmhands.

Where have the workers gone?

Karen Kasmauski/Science Faction/Corbis

Following in the controversial footsteps of Arizona’s lawmakers, the ruling Republican party in Georgia introduced beefed-up immigrant legislation earlier this spring. The bill, HB 87, empowers police to question the immigration status of criminal suspects and demands business owners use E-Verify, a federal database, to check a prospective employee’s immigration status. HB 87 will take effect July 1. But, just as in Arizona, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the legislation: last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with several rights organizations and individuals, challenged the law in federal district court. “This legislation turns Georgia into a police state,” says Azadeh Shahshahani of the Georgia chapter of the ACLU. Even Carlos Santana weighed in on the national debate: “The people of Arizona, the people of Atlanta, Georgia, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Santana earlier this month at Major League Baseball’s annual civil rights game.

Along with opposition from civil rights groups, leaders of the agricultural industry—one of Georgia’s largest—are protesting the bill. Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says migrant workers have “heard horror stories of people being harassed, being deported, being stopped at a licence check.” As a result, says Hall, farm workers are bypassing Georgia, causing a massive labour shortage in the state and sending the $1.1-billion industry into a tailspin. Hall reports farmers are experiencing labour shortages of up to 50 per cent, and estimates that a quarter of Georgia’s crops will go unharvested—representing some $300 million in lost revenue.

Although Georgia’s unemployment rate sits at 9.9 per cent, Hall says hiring domestic workers isn’t an option. “If we could get domestic workers to do our field work, we would,” he says, “but they’re not available.” Domestic workers might work in the cooler packing houses, but not in the fields. “It’s back-breaking work,” says Hall.

Despite the economic ramifications and costly court cases of the immigrant bills, the governments of Alabama and South Carolina are looking to introduce kindred legislation—capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment to win votes. Charles Kuck, a partner in a law firm that helped prepare the Georgia lawsuit, says Americans can expect to see more copycat bills “until Congress does its job and reshapes and corrects our national immigration policy.”

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