Georgia Farmers Say Immigration Law Keeps Workers Away

May 27, 2011

In Georgia, farmers have almost everything they need for a successful early harvest, as squash, peppers and peaches are ready for market. But one thing's missing: someone to pick them. Fruit and vegetable farmers blame the state's new immigration reform law, saying it's keeping migrant workers away.

In a Newscast report, Melissa Stiers of Georgia Public Broadcasting spoke to Steven Johnson of South Georgia Produce, who says his crop is ripe on the ground — but there aren't enough people to pick it:

"We're probably at 30 percent of boxes of produce that we would normally get in the spring season," he says. "And it's there in front of you to be got, and the markets are good, and you can't get it. It's very frustrating. "

Johnson says the farmers can't find the labor, as workers who normally come up from Florida are afraid to come across the state line because of the new immigration reform law the governor recently signed.

Georgia's new law, which takes effect in July, authorizes police to check the citizenship status of anyone pulled over for an offense. It also requires employers to use a federal database to check the legality of new hires. The law has been compared to one in Arizona, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reported on the new law's possible effects earlier this week. Farm owners have grown increasingly vocal about the shortage of workers, and the state's labor and agriculture agencies are looking for ways to address the situation.

Writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jeremy Redmon reports that the farm jobs "pay $12.50 an hour on average. The state's unemployment rate is now at 9.9 percent."

Agriculture is Georgia's largest industry, bringing in $1.1 billion, according to Redmon. He also spoke with Manuel De La Rosa, a recruiter who brings workers to a farm in southwest Georgia.

"He said these workers became afraid after they heard Hispanic television news programs comparing Georgia's new law to a stringent one Arizona enacted last year," Redmon writes.

In Kathy Lohr's report, she spoke to R.T. Stanley Jr., a farmer who says he can't hire locals to do the job:

Stanley says experienced workers can earn as much as $200 a day. He says he's tried to hire locals to do the job — working in the fields eight hours or more clipping, bending and lifting in the oppressive Georgia heat.

"They just don't want to do this hard work. And they'll tell you right quick," he says. "I have 'em to come out and work for two hours and they said, 'I'm not doing this. It's too hard.' "

For Stanley, finding workers is already tough enough and he says the new restrictions are likely to make it worse.

"I got my livelihood on the line," he says. "If I don't harvest these onions, I'll lose my farm."

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