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In April Georgia enacted HB87, an anti-immigration law that mirrors Arizona’s ill-fated 2010 law, SB1070. Like SB 1070, Georgia’s Illegal Immigration Reform and EnforcementAct makes it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, impose harsh penalties for providing false papers to an undocumented immigrant, and empower law enforcement to verify the immigration status of anyone who which they reasonably suspect is illegal in the country. In addition, Georgian law dramatically expands the obligation for employers to use the state’s E-Verify system, which verifies workers’ work eligibility requirements.

These laws don’t work in a vacuum, and states and municipalities that recently passed anti-immigration laws have had significant negative economic consequences. For example, in Arizona, SB 1070 lost $ 141 million in conference cancellations and $ 253 million in aggregate economic performance with the potential for far more in the future. Cities that have passed anti-immigrant ordinances also saw high costs: Farmers Branch, Texas, spent $ 4 million in legal fees defending its laws, and Hazelton, Pennsylvania, is spending more than $ 5 million on to spend in defense of his law.

Georgia’s lawmakers recognize that the state’s law will have an impact on its agricultural industry, which relies heavily on migrant workers to harvest grain and ginning cotton. The preamble to Section 20.1 of HB 87 recognizes the importance of an industry that generates 12 percent (approximately $ 67 billion) of the state’s gross domestic product:

The agricultural industry of Georgia, on the other hand, is an important pillar for the economy of this state and indispensable for the quality of life of all Georgians. And whereas understanding the impact of immigration reform measures on Georgia’s vital agribusiness is a fundamental key to implementing immigration reform.

Business groups tried to prevent the law from being passed. Two hundred agricultural leaders sent a letter to the legislature expressing their opposition to the law. But the legislature pushed further, even with the Arizona experience behind them and even with recognition of the law’s potentially devastating effects on the agricultural sector.

What impact will Georgia’s anti-immigration law have on the state? It is true that given the remarkable diversity of agricultural products, seasonal cycles, and the size and sophistication of agriculture in Georgia, it is difficult to accurately quantify economic losses. But we already have a sense of how devastating HB 87 will be to the Georgian economy as there is evidence that migrant workers are circumventing the state because of its immigration law.

This report attempts to combine existing information on agricultural losses from HB 87 with in-depth reports and interviews with local farmers who are experiencing the effects of the passage for themselves. It also examines the long-term consequences for the state – and for America’s food security as a whole – if migrant workers continue to avoid Georgia.

The report makes four main arguments:

First, Georgia is already seeing serious labor shortages from workers avoiding the state due to its immigration law. This shortage is likely to reverse a decade-long trend in which fruit and vegetable crops gained an increasing share of the total agricultural value of the state and expanded the agricultural sector of Georgia. Initial reports from the state estimate the economic losses for the 2011 growing season at between $ 300 million and $ 1 billion.

We further estimate that Georgia would lose nearly $ 800 million in value annually – the price of a crop if it were sold from a farm – if it replaced all of its handpicked crops with machine-harvested crops, to solve the problem of security avoid sufficient migrant workers. On-farm value is only a measure of the amount of money at the time of sale by the farm itself, not the final price consumers may pay. So these numbers are conservative at best in terms of the macroeconomic loss to the state.

Second, the effects of the shortage of migrant workers will be felt most strongly by smallholders, who are already comparatively disadvantaged compared to larger producers. We estimate that switching to machine-grown crops will depreciate the average small-scale farm by $ 1.2 million a year.

Third, Georgia’s economy is a complex and intertwined machine. Losses in the agricultural sector have a multiplier effect that affects the entire economy. A loss of nearly $ 800 million a year in crop value to the Georgian economy will significantly increase unemployment and harm the state as a whole.

By some estimates, each job in the agricultural sector supports three more “upstream” jobs, including jobs such as processing and transportation. HB 87 can ultimately mean the loss of not only migrant jobs, but jobs for American citizens in industries that depend on agriculture. Similarly, many small communities in Georgia rely on the money and consumer power of migrant workers to stay afloat and are at risk of suffering significant losses to their already troubled economies.

After all, changes in the agricultural sector affect Georgia as a whole, as does changes in Georgia’s ability to produce food affect the country as a whole. The loss of hand-picked crops in Georgia such as berries, peaches and onions would force us to import these crops from other countries. This change leaves our nutritional, health, and safety standards in the hands of others. Food prices will also rise with longer travel times.

“We’re in a darkened room and walking around with outstretched arms,” ​​worried Ben Evans, a gin operator from South Georgia, about the future. Evans will have to wait for the seven-day-week, twelve-hour shifts to begin before realizing how badly his business, run by all-Hispanic crews, will be hit by the labor shortage.

Evans’ frank assessment could also describe where Georgia is dealing with the challenges its leading industries are facing following last year’s legislative action.

The full effects of HB 87 cannot be observed in Georgia for many months or even several years. We hope, however, that the preliminary results presented in this report provide a warning to lawmakers in other states considering their own version of anti-immigration legislation.

A federal solution to the problem of undocumented work in the agribusiness, the Ag JOBS bill, has been on the table for more than 10 years. But the legislative opposition of the same kind of immigration restrictors that promoted these state anti-immigration measures have prevented them from putting them into effect.

More specifically, this agricultural crisis is just a symptom of the wider dysfunction in our broken immigration system. The only real solution to these problems is a comprehensive federal strategy. These government efforts are simply costly, counterproductive skirmishes that distract and prevent progress in reforming our immigration system.

Tom Baxter has been a Georgia journalist for 36 years. He is currently a fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.

Download this report (pdf)

Download the introduction and summary (pdf)

Read the report in your web browser (Scribd)