Migrant workers hand pick Vidalia onions in Georgia. The vegetables are too delicate to be harvested by machines. Kathy Lohr / NPR hide caption
Kathy Lohr / NPR
Kathy Lohr / NPR
Georgia is introducing a new law aimed at combating illegal immigrants and many across the state are nervous. Corporations fear an economic boycott, the Latino community fear police officers will abuse their new powers, and farmers in South Georgia fear the law will violate them dramatically.
Georgia is known for its peaches and Vidalia onions, the state vegetable. The specialty plant is produced in just a few counties in the rural southeast of the state, where the soil is just right.
M&T Farms’ Aries Haygood watches a crew of about 50 migrant workers handpick the golden onions in groups of three or four.
“At the moment they’re only coming through the field,” he says. “They grab the onions and just cut off the tips and roots to prepare them to take to the packing house.”
It’s a labor-intensive process that machines simply can’t do because it would harm the delicate crop – an industry that has an annual turnover of $ 140 million.
This farm has 500 acres of onions with about 80,000 plants per acre, so Haygood relies heavily on migrant workers for help.
“Our biggest fear is that because of the way the bill might be structured, we can’t find enough manpower to do the work we need to do in a short amount of time,” he says.
“Living on the Line”
Just a few miles east, RT Stanley Jr. has been growing Vidalia onions since the 1970s. He is also concerned about the immigration law, which he says already affects his workers.
“If they are afraid, they will go to other states instead of Georgia because we have this new law,” he says. “And I’m worried about that.”
The Georgian Immigration Act comes into effect on July 1st.
- The law introduces new rules for hiring workers and gives the police greater powers to arrest illegal immigrants. It also increases the penalty for people using a fake ID to get a job, and requires most employers to use the federal e-verify system to ensure that a person is eligible to work.
- Those applying for public benefits, including food stamps and public housing, are now required to provide ID to prove they are legal US citizens.
- The law affects all employers, but farmers say they will feel it most because they employ hundreds of migrant workers.
- Some opponents of the law say it has already affected businesses targeting Latino residents, and Atlanta business leaders fear an impending boycott will harm the economy.
– Kathy Lohr
According to Stanley, seasoned employees can make up to $ 200 a day. He says he tried to hire locals to get the job done – work in the fields for eight hours or more to cut, bend, and lift in the stifling heat of Georgia.
“They just don’t want to do this hard work. And they’ll tell you quickly,” he says. “I have to come out and work two hours and they said, ‘I’m not doing this. It’s too hard.’ “”
It’s already difficult enough for Stanley to find workers, and he says the new restrictions are likely to make it worse.
“I have my livelihood at stake,” he says. “If I don’t harvest these onions, I’ll lose my farm.”
Some farmers use the federal government’s agency work program known as H-2A, but say the system has problems – including red tape and processing delays.
The new Georgia law, modeled after Arizona law currently being challenged in court, requires all businesses with more than 10 employees to use the federal e-verify system to verify employee eligibility.
Onion farmers say they know politicians are under pressure to do something about illegal immigration, but they aren’t sure if that’s the answer.
Joel Salgado, a crew foreman from Mexico, is here legally and has been harvesting onions for about 15 years. “People have to go back to Mexico, you know. They don’t want to take any more risks here,” he says. “You won’t find a job. … I know a lot of families who have already declined.”
Law faces challenges
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal knows there is opposition to the new law, including legal challenges and the threat of an economic boycott. But he says the new law is the right one.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs the state’s new immigration law in Atlanta on May 13, while State Representative Matt Ramsey – the law’s sponsor – looks on. Tami Chappell / AP Hide the caption
Tami Chappell / AP
Tami Chappell / AP
“Let me repeat something important that is sometimes lost,” he said as he signed the bill on May 13th. “Illegal immigration is already illegal in the state of Georgia.”
According to the Deal, an estimated half a million illegal immigrants live in Georgia – and they cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Rep. Matt Ramsey is the sponsor of the bill.
“It’s not just an immigration issue,” says Ramsey. “It’s a school problem. It’s a transportation problem. It’s a health problem.”
With the law rolling out gradually over the next few years, farmers in South Georgia are suggesting that farm workers might be treated differently from others – but Ramsey says this won’t work.
“I don’t think we need to start picking winners and losers in law and treating industries differently,” he says. “Especially in this time of 10 percent unemployment.”
But back in Vidalia, Haygood says if farmers can’t get enough workers, they may have to stop producing crops like onions and peaches.
“We have invested our time and efforts in growing our businesses and suddenly something like this could go out of business for this industry overnight.”
It is unclear what exactly will happen when Georgia starts implementing its new law. Farmers have to stick to it – and higher labor and processing costs could mean higher prices for consumers.