NOTE: This is the electronic version of today’s AJC column.
Whatever else it accomplishes, passage of House Bill 87 has brought a welcome clarity to the debate over illegal immigration in Georgia. It has cast sunlight where there used to be shadows and has forced hypocrisy out into the open.
For example, do illegal immigrants perform labor that most Georgians are unwilling or even unable to do? The once contentious question now has an answer: Yes, in many cases they do. Acres and acres of crops now rotting in the south Georgia sunshine offer mute testament to that fact that agricultural labor is hard, and that most people in Western industrialized countries don’t want to do it.
And have Georgia farmers become dependent on that illegal workforce, in many cases building their entire economic structure on the availability of cheap and undocumented labor?
Until recently, the state agriculture community had clung to the fiction that only a small and unknowable percentage of their labor was here illegally. However, as their workforce shrinks in the wake of HB 87, such denials have become impossible to sustain. The degree to which they have relied on illegal labor is now painfully clear, and will be reflected on many a bottom line.
In fact, farmers have until now enjoyed the best of both worlds. As long as lax enforcement of federal immigration law gave them access to a large, docile and for the most part invisible workforce, they could sit back and remain quiet in the politically charged debate over amnesty and other measures intended to rationalize immigration. (It didn’t hurt that keeping those workers illegal created an all-but-captive workforce that had few other options.)
Members of Georgia’s congressional delegation have long been complicit in that two-sided game. They have quietly blocked periodic attempts by the federal government to enforce immigration laws more stringently, while simultaneously railing against the presence of the very illegal immigrants they were helping to protect.
Passage of HB 87 has ended that sweet little arrangement. If the state’s agriculture industry wants continued access to that workforce, they need to become vocal advocates for some means of legalizing and protecting it. They need to publicly acknowledge that a population vilified by many as a drain on the state’s economy is in fact a necessity in much of rural Georgia, and they need to start electing public officials who are willing to make that argument in Washington and here in Atlanta.
If they have workers they want to keep, they need to fight for them. And that does not mean adopting the Utah approach of trying to “legalize” illegal immigrants at the state level, giving them permission to be in the state as long as they agree to remain in the fields picking crops and don’t have any higher ambitions. (HB 87 includes a provision calling for a study of that approach).
Such a program would be wildly unconstitutional. And perhaps just as important, we are long past the days when we condemn a population to servitude in manual labor, allowing them to do that but dream of nothing else.
By the way, everything that can be said about the political silence of Georgia agriculture industry regarding the fate of its workforce, and the price they’re paying for it, can also be said about other industries, especially restaurants, hotels and other service-related industries.
The answer to this dilemma will come not in piecemeal state legislation, but in a federal law that simultaneously tightens laws against hiring of illegal labor while offering those already here a path to citizenship. Anything else is fruitless.
– Jay Bookman