I was born in Georgia. Edilberto was not, but he has toiled in Georgia’s onion fields for the past 16 years. By all signs, he has led a contented, albeit hard, life in the state where his three children were born. Now though, he is planning to move to North Carolina. This is because on July 1 parts of a new immigration law—HB 87—took effect in Georgia, requiring employers with more than ten workers to check the immigration status of a new hire in a federal database; another stipulation makes it a felony to give false information on a job application. These, and a ream of other provisions, are meant to curb the number of those living in Georgia who were not born in the US.
There are around 425,000 undocumented workers in Georgia, but that number will likely decrease. Anecdotal evidence points to an exodus to neighboring states, especially Florida—where no special immigration laws are afoot—and the Carolinas. Many agricultural workers start their year in Florida and migrate north with the harvest season. This year Georgia is being skipped, according to a recent article in the Economist. Rough estimates say the number of farm hands is down by 30%.
Immigrants like Edilberto aren’t the only ones concerned about the impact of the new immigration law. Farmers and economists in Georgia are also expressing doubts. In a recent survey conducted by the Georgia Agribusiness Council, also cited by the Economist, 46% of respondents said they had too few workers. The head of a farmer’s group estimates that the state’s $1.1 billion fruit-and-vegetable industry could suffer a loss of $300 million.
Gary Paulk, a blackberry farmer interviewed by PRI’s the World, says he has lost $200,00-250,00 this season, as unpicked berries rot. “Having a fake ID, a first-time offense can be up to 10 years, and $100,000 fine,” Paulk said. “I mean that’s, that’s like a felony. A felony to use a fake ID to get a job to support your family.” Short-handed farmers and contractors are even traveling to Florida to try and recruit workers. But afraid of Georgia’s new law the workers are marking time in the Sunshine State.
Granted, all illegal immigrants in the US should be held accountable. The ones who have broke no law other than illegal entry should be fined or forced to apply for a seasonal work visa. (These need to be made available in greater numbers). Those caught breaking any serious law should be quickly deported. But intolerance of low-skilled foreign labor is foolhardy. If the good ol’ boys continue to think that legislation like HB 87 is the solution, they deserve the economic backlash that goes with such a benighted remedy.