Cost Of Georgia's Immigration Laws Passed To Farms

Originally published on July 2, 2011 1:41 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Bryan Tolar is president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. They represent more than 700 of the state's farms and agriculture companies. He joins us from Douglassville, Georgia. Thanks for being with us Mr. Tolar.

BRYAN TOLAR: Good to be with you, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: And tell us what you're hearing. Has this created a almost overnight labor shortage?

TOLAR: Well, it's been a challenge for us the last several months, actually. Even before the bill was signed into law we already had workers that were concerned about being in Georgia or coming to Georgia, and so they just started avoiding our state and heading to other states looking for work and they weren't here when we needed them here this year to get the crops harvested.

SIMON: Mr. Tolar, without sounding naive, unemployment rate in Georgia now is around 10 percent. So if you have a state where one in 10 people are out of work, why shouldn't those jobs go to certifiable American citizens or legal workers?

TOLAR: Well, we would love for the citizens in that 10 percent unemployment rate to seek these jobs out. But the reality is that we've been promoting these jobs through the Georgia Department of Labor Offices. They've been very helpful in making those notices available in reaching out in their various career centers across the state, but they won't show up. And farmers don't hire illegal workers. All the workers they hire present documents. If they're presenting false documents, you know, they can't tell the difference. You or I couldn't tell the difference either. But at the end of the day, there are jobs available, they're just going unfilled and workers just aren't showing up.

SIMON: Are workers not showing up because for many people the kind of backbreaking agricultural work we may be talking about here is just no way to make a living?

TOLAR: Oh, no. There's, there are fees out there that are paid that can be upwards of $100 a day and some can make close to $200 a day harvesting crops such as blackberries, which are a very high-value crop. If you work fast you can get good money.

SIMON: So why don't people want to take those jobs?

TOLAR: Because they don't want to work in the heat and they don't want to fight insects, I guess. It's hard to say why they don't want jobs. I mean people talk about what changed the South and certainly, there's no doubt that air conditioning played a large role in what we've come accustomed to in the workplace. And there's just no way to have an air-conditioned farming operation.

SIMON: Do you see a solution to all this?

TOLAR: Well, the solution is not simple. The problem that we have is not simple. And certainly, the opportunities for correcting it aren't going to be made at our state capital. They're going to be made up at the Congress in Washington, D.C. And we need to have a total revamp of guest worker programs. We only have about 20 farms in our state that utilize the federal guest worker program called H2A. That alone says that it's a failure. So until we can come up with a permitting system that first says that we're not providing amnesty, that we're going to provide penalties for those that are here without the proper documents. But let's get been permitted, let's make sure they get in the system, we know who they are, we know where they are, we know where they're working, and let's let them work because they're doing jobs that people otherwise are not willing to do.

SIMON: Let me try and understand something, Mr. Tolar, very bluntly on this Fourth of July weekend. Is it possible for Americans to eat without an expansive immigration program?

TOLAR: Consumers aren't going to see a lack of products in the marketplace. But as we move forward, if we don't correct our labor situation for these types of jobs, then what you're going to do is we're going to lose those jobs to outside countries and then we are going to be importing their food. Instead of bringing their workers to harvest the food that we grow here, we're going to bring their food in that was harvested in their country. And I tell you what, I like Georgia grown. I like U.S. grown. And that's what we ought to be focused on. And I hope that we can get a federal guest worker program that allows that to happen.

SIMON: Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. Thanks very much for being with us, sir.

TOLAR: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.