Will Georgia Avoid Last Year’s Farm Labor Shortage Fiasco?

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Forum

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court will decide what authority if any states have to determine immigration policies within their borders.  This year the Georgia agriculture industry hopes to avoid a repeat of last year’s fiasco when just the possibility of a new state law caused seasonal workers to leave or avoid the state; an estimated $400 million in crops rotted in the fields.

Wednesday morning the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Obama administration effort to stop Arizona’s immigration law.  Arizona says the federal government has failed to stop the migration of illegal immigrants from Mexico.  The Obama administration says states have no legal authority to control any aspect of immigration law.

This is the reality of it:  Eight U.S. Supreme Court justices and three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta could determine whether Georgia has enough migratory labor force to pick and pack fruits and vegetables worth billions of dollars.  Right now it is a chess game because the nation does not have a migratory guest worker program that actually works well.

“Cautious is the right word,” said Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association Executive Director Charles Hall.  “We are pretty confident we will be okay, but if the Supreme Court ruling basically allowed the Circuit Court to rule that the Georgia law is constitutional and they can enforce the show me your papers section, we’ll have the same fiasco we had last year.”

“Show me your papers” is a section of Georgia’s 2011 immigration law that would allow local law enforcement to detain anyone who is not carrying proof that they are in the country legally. The bill had not even become a law last spring when migrant workers began to bail on Georgia.

“A lot of workers went to North Carolina,” said Georgia Agribusiness Council President Bryan Tolar.  “That happened.  They didn’t flee the country.  They fled to other states where they didn’t feel those pressures existed.”  Using industry provided data, the University of Georgia said 11,000 agriculture jobs usually done by seasonal migrant workers went unfilled last year.

Two sections of last year’s Georgia law – including “show me your papers” – are on hold after a challenge filed by several plaintiff organizations.  A federal judge stayed those sections pending review.  The three-judge 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta heard arguments on March 1.  No ruling is expected until after the U.S. Supreme Court decides the Arizona case.

Here is why all this matters.  Crops don’t wait for courts to make up their minds.  A mild winter means some Georgia crops will be ready to harvest weeks ahead of most years.  Berries are coming out of the fields now.  Onions are underway and other crops within the next few weeks.

Migrant labor sustains domestic agriculture.  The work Americans will not do to harvest their own food is done by seasonal workers who are willing to earn $9.39 per hour – and sometimes a bit more if they work fast – to pick and pack crops.  How do we think berries get into grocery store boxes?  Someone picks and packs them.  That person is usually a migrant worker.

But millions of illegal migrants – a high percentage from Mexico – have overwhelmed social services, particularly state Medicaid budgets.  States continuously plead with Washington for better federal control of the U.S. border with Mexico.  Arizona passed its version of immigration law in April 2010.  Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah also passed laws.

On one hand you have the agriculture industry in desperate need of seasonal migrant workers.  On the other hand you have states trying to control their borders and social services costs.  Those ideas don’t mix well and Congress has failed to enact guest worker program relief.

About 33 Georgia producers rely on H2A – the existing federal program to provide legal migrant workers. But industry insiders say the program is flawed, applications are often delayed or lost and they cannot rely on it.  “We had guys with onions laying on the top of the ground because (workers) did not arrive on time” this year, said Georgia Department of Agriculture commissioner Gary Black.

Last year – faced with rotting crops – Georgia tried to innovate.  Probationers were offered the chance to work alongside migrants in blistering hot fields.  Not surprisingly, fewer than a couple dozen even tried to participate and the heralded initiative fizzled under the blazing sun.

Georgia agriculture is a $68.9 billion per year industry that needs to fill 80,000 seasonal jobs.  It doesn’t need them all at once.  It needs some in the spring; it needs others through the summer and into fall.  Geographically, the primary need is in the southern portion of the state.

No one can predict what a court will do, but there is some logic to how this might play out.  If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Arizona law, the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta could decide that Georgia can begin to enforce the so-called “show me your papers” law.  If the Supreme Court overturns the Arizona law then all immigration issues will likely be in the hands of Congress.

The final word here comes from Bryan Tolar at the Georgia Agribusiness Council:  “Where do we go from here?  We have a state that is concerned about providing services to people who are in the country illegally.  We have our largest economic engine that relies on labor and we can’t find the people domestically.  If you can’t fill the need, what do you do?”

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