Anti-illegal immigration bill stokes backlash in Alabama fields
Farmers in states like Alabama that have passed strong anti-illegal immigration laws are fighting back, saying they are losing labor and that US workers are unwilling to take up farm work.
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Advocates for immigration reform insist that the ultimate solution is for farmers to market their jobs to US workers, an approach they say would resonate at a time of high unemployment rates and a troubled economy.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet agribusiness leaders say US workers are not accustomed to farm work and would drive up costs by demanding higher pay and benefits.
This debate is also raging in Georgia, where farmers are protesting an immigration bill passed in the spring that is similar to the one in Alabama. Among its measures is a requirement forcing businesses with 10 employees or more to use a federal database to verify that each worker is allowed to work in the state legally.
Industry groups representing farming, poultry, construction, and tourism interests say the new law will result in millions of lost dollars for the state economy. The Georgia Department of Agriculture reports that this year’s harvest was short 11,000 workers, which farming advocates say was the result of Mexican immigrants leaving the state.
A labor shortage of 5,244 workers in seven of the state’s primary crops – blueberry, blackberry, Vidalia onion, bell pepper, squash, cucumber, and watermelon – resulted in a $75 million loss, according to the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
The losses are “pretty significant,” says John McKissick, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia. He says farmers participating in the survey say “they will either reduce acreage next year or reduce their harvest” as a result.
Georgia officials are countering the potential loss in labor by directing the Department of Corrections to create a voluntary program that will identify 100,000 former convicts who are currently on probation to receive consideration for agriculture jobs. A pilot program is currently underway involving three farms in southwest Georgia.
Complaints by farmers that US-born workers are often unreliable and demand higher wages is something that Chavez says, “might have been anticipated” by lawmakers drafting the reform measures. He proposes that one solution might be for future legislation to exempt agricultural workers entirely. However, even that proposal might not convince laborers it is safe to remain in the state.
“It’s very difficult. The message you’re sending out is, ‘We don’t want you here, and we’re going to make your life difficult.’ If you are a worker who is mobile, which is classic for undocumented workers, you’re going to think that maybe there’s a greener pasture somewhere else,” he says.
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