WASHINGTON — I’m going to let you in on a big secret, a closely-held and dirty truth about Georgia’s farmers: They depend on immigrants, some of whom are here illegally.
What’s that? You knew that already? Not such a secret?
Well, Georgia’s agri-business leaders are posing and posturing as if it is. They dare not admit that they need the sweat and toil of migrant laborers so much that they are not always fastidious about searching for legal documents.
But the gut-busting pressures of a harsh new Georgia law targeting illegal immigrants — modeled after a controversial law in Arizona — may force farmers to speak the truth out loud. At the very least, it may force them to campaign openly for a broad immigration reform proposal that grants legal status to illegal laborers.
It’s not looking like a good year for many of Georgia’s farmers, who were already struggling with a warming earth. As drought conditions worsen in some portions of the state — upgraded from moderate to severe — searing heat and stingy rainfall are yellowing leaves and stunting crops.
Now, some of those lucky enough to reap bountiful harvests may be forced to leave fruits and vegetables in the fields for want of enough hands to pick the onions and tomatoes, beans and watermelons. Farmers have complained that some of their seasonal workers from Mexico, Guatemala and other points south have failed to show up, frightened away by the new law, which takes effect July 1, and its promise of increased scrutiny of those with Spanish surnames.
Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable
Growers Association, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that some migrant workers are skipping Georgia because they fear harassment. “People are just saying, ‘I am not going to Georgia. The law is terrible. We are going to get in trouble there. Let’s just go on.’ They have options. And what they are saying is, ‘Georgia is not the place to go,’ “ he told reporter Jeremy Redmon.
(For what it’s worth, the labor shortage casts doubt on
the old canard that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from hardworking American citizens, a reliable set-piece in arguments from nativist diehards. Even at an average wage of $12.50 or so an hour, native-born Georgians aren’t eager to take the work the fields offer — dirty, joint-maiming, miserably hot and impermanent. Once you’ve picked one crop, you must move to another state for a different harvest.)
Still, Minor and other agri-business leaders continue to insist that they only hire legally — and that the new law has scared away workers with green cards or other legal documents. That may be. It’s certainly easy to imagine that workers who don’t wish to be harassed would avoid a state that has hung out an unwelcome sign.
But it’s also likely that some of those workers don’t have legal documents and fear deportation. Hints of that abound — including a recent history wherein Georgia farmers complained to their Congressional delegation when federal agents raided their fields.
There are also the frequent complaints about the federal program that governs guest workers, a system that allows temporary laborers to enter the country legally. Many Georgia farmers complain it is too bureaucratic and costly to use. So how many of them rely, instead, on workers whose papers are suspect?
Georgia farmers aren’t the likeliest allies of immigration reform activists, but necessity can create strange alliances. The fields need strong backs and willing hands, and there aren’t enough of those around.