Now that Congress has given up on comprehensive immigration reform, the hypocrisy of claims that the problem can be solved by merely enforcing existing law is about to be exposed on South Georgia’s farms.
Agricultural interests, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, are already worrying out loud that if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials crack down on illegal hiring this year, as it should, it will leave hundreds of millions of dollars of crops in the field to rot. That’s a very different message than that preached in public by the state’s political leadership, including U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, who claim to support stricter enforcement of current immigration laws as a precondition for tackling comprehensive reform.
Both Georgia senators abandoned a bipartisan effort last month to enact a top-to-bottom rewrite of laws regarding the use of immigrant labor. Among other things, the failed proposal — which Isakson and Chambliss helped draft — would have streamlined the process to allow more legal temporary immigrant workers into the country to pick crops. Afraid of a backlash, American business and agricultural interests did not push hard enough for that change and other major reforms. They talked in political back channels about the need for comprehensive reform, but they fell largely silent once critics started attacking a proposal to provide temporary legal status to many of the workers they have lured here to produce food, products and services for American consumers.
Now they are reaping what they failed to sow.
South Georgia farmers rely heavily on immigrant labor, much of it in the form of legal workers who get seasonal H-2A visas. However, a good portion of its workforce — perhaps as much as half — is here illegally.
"The only people we can get to do the work is Mexicans," said Randy Scarbor, who harvests 350 acres of melons, sweet potatoes and tomatoes on his farm near Tifton. "If we got our political people to understand you don’t get average city people out working in fields, we’d get this mess straightened out," he told The Associated Press.
The labor problem in the fields of South Georgia mirrors what is happening elsewhere, especially in California. The process of bringing in temporary legal workers with H-2A visas takes at least a month and requires farmers to prove there are no U.S. workers available to do the work. Employers also must provide H-2A workers with free housing and transportation and pay the prevailing wage, about $8.50 an hour in Georgia.
Farmers say the process is inefficient and costly, leaving would-be legal workers waiting in their home countries for visas. That delay increases the pressure on farmers to skip the legal route and hire immigrants already in the country illegally.
If ICE cracks down on illegal immigrants working in the fields — as politicians claim the public is demanding — that source of labor will dry up. And so will the unharvested crops.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
July 12, 2007