ATLANTA—Georgia farmers are suffering from the state’s new immigration law. HB 87 was partially blocked by the courts, but other parts took effect July 1. Even without fully becoming law, the legislation had a chilling effect on migrant workers essential to agriculture, according to George Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
There are two types of workers who come to harvest crops in Georgia, Hall said. Some come with an agricultural visa. Others, the majority, come in with migrant work crews, following the harvest across the region as the crops mature. Some workers do not enter the country legally.
“Blueberries, blackberries—the grower will hire his crews temporarily for four to eight weeks, paid on a piece rate,” Hall explained, adding that the average field worker makes about $12.00 an hour.
Far fewer workers have come with the migrant crews this summer, he said. “It is very difficult work, carrying heavy buckets of crops in the heat. … Our domestic workers are having trouble withstanding it. People refer to this as unskilled labor. It’s actually very skilled. They have to know when a blackberry is ripe, when a cucumber is big enough to harvest.”
Hall spoke in a telephone press conference sponsored by The National Immigration Forum. The press conference addressed the effects of the E-Verify program on small businesses.
E-Verify is a national electronic database intended to allow employers to learn if a new hire is in the country legally. The database can only be used via a high-speed Internet connection, however, which not all farmers have.
Some small businesses must hire others to do the checking, at an average cost of $147 per worker, according to Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. No one is allowed to check a person’s status before he or she is hired.
Georgia’s law will require employers to use E-Verify. This requirement will be tough on farmers and not practical for employers who work out of their pickup trucks. They often need to hire people on the spot and put them to work under time pressure—while the blackberries are ready and before they turn to mush.
There are also questions about the verification program’s accuracy.
“Not enough thought was given to the consequences of HB 87,” said Hall. “Unfortunately the same thing could happen nationally if E-Verify passes without enough thought. There has got to be an alternative offered.”
By alternative, he meant a legal way for more immigrants to work temporarily in the country. Migrant workers of various kinds are not just useful but vital to the economy.
“For every farm field job there are about three jobs upstream and downstream of that,” said Palomarez. Every migrant worker who did not arrive to harvest crops, or every worker who is rejected by E-Verify and loses his job, costs about six other jobs, according to his estimate.“E-Verify is a job killer. It’s not just taking one job. It’s taking jobs upstream and downstream,” he asserted.
“State efforts to pass mandatory E-Verify legislation only add to the labyrinth of absurd and outdated state laws and regulations that impact America’s immigration system, which is federal law and a responsibility of the federal government”, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, in a press release after the meeting. “States would be better served by pressuring their Congressional delegations to address this problem with a national solution and passing federal immigration reform.”