Farm guest worker program being discussed

By KAYLA HURLEY

News Intern

In March of 2011, Georgia passed a law cracking down on illegal immigration—now some leaders argue that providing migrant workers with seasonal visas could save the future of agriculture.

Georgia law mandates private employers to verify that their employees are eligible to work in the United States through a federal database, E-Verify.

Currently, Federal H-2A visas are offered that allow migrant workers temporary legal entrance into the United States to perform agricultural labor during seasonal times. According to a study by the Department of Labor, H-2A is often ineffective due to the high amounts of paperwork and costs for immigrants.

This past week, the Georgia Department of Agriculture released an agriculture labor survey commissioned by the Georgia Legislature.

[Read the full report, which asked 230 Georgia farmers their opinions on a variety of topics.]

“The only answer lies in the prospects of a 21st century federal guest worker program that meets the needs of all types of agricultural enterprises,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a statement accompanying the survey. “The integrity of such a program must be protected and accompanied by an unprecedented commitment to strict enforcement by appropriate authorities.”

Georgia State Senator John Bulloch (R-Ochlocknee), who is a farmer in Thomas County, said state legislators are closely watching the status of a guest worker program created in Utah last year.

“The federal government doesn’t recognize Utah’s program,” Bulloch said. “[Georgia House of Representatives] Speaker David Ralston has said he wants to see how Utah’s program plays out, because there are some legal issues involved.”

County Extension Coordinator Mitchell May is among those who believe a reform to Georgia’s immigration law would be beneficial for local farmers.

“Some people don’t look well on it, but immigrant workers help the farmers and the consumer,” May said.

With the new immigration law, the amount of migrant workers in Georgia has reduced. The decrease in workers has resulted in the decrease of surviving crops.

“Vegetables have a limited window when the crop can be picked,” May said. “Recently, workers can’t be found in a timely fashion. Vegetables are a high-value crop and if you miss that window, you lose your crop.”

May hopes to see a change that will provide farmers the ability to pick crops in a workable and convenient way.

Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby has done his research concerning immigration law. Hobby agrees that Georgia needs to take another look at the law they have created in response to immigration.

“For employers, it is an extra burden to go through the E-Verify system,” Hobby said. “This law places a new level of regulatory control over employers, and from what I hear, it has been more difficult since the law has been passed to find farm labor.”

Georgia’s immigration law affects legal immigrants, also.  Hobby believes legal immigrants have started to leave because they are scared of being targeted.

“We shouldn’t single out migrant workers,” Hobby said. “It wouldn’t be the right thing to do. When it’s difficult to find farm labor, it’s difficult to cultivate crops and it’s difficult for the economy to grow.”

Rick McCaskill, chairman of Development Authority of Bainbridge, also supports a reform to current law.

“Immigration is a big deal because we need those seasonal workers,” McCaskill said. “Georgia has made it hard and placed a larger burden [on farmers] that has caused more problems for agriculture.”

Although several local farmers were contacted, none wished to voice their opinion concerning Georgia’s immigration law or possible reform.

News Writer Brennan Leathers contributed to this story.

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