Migrant farm workers from Mexico finish a long day harvesting organic vegetables (Image credit:… [+] Getty Images North America via @daylife)

By Benjamin Powell

To avoid repeating last year, when labor shortages caused an estimated $ 140 million in agricultural losses as crops rot in the fields, officials in Georgia are now sending prisoners to state farms to help harvest fruit and vegetables Vegetables to help.

The labor shortage, which also affects the hospitality industry, is a consequence of Georgia’s immigration enforcement law, HB 87, passed last year. State MP Matt Ramsey, one of the authors of the law, said at the time: “Our goal is to … remove incentives for illegal aliens to invade our state. “

Now he and others are learning: be careful what you want because you may get more than you expected.

Georgian law, similar to that in Alabama, Arizona and several other states, gives the police the power to obtain immigration documents from suspects if they are arrested for other possible violations. The law also makes it harder for companies to hire workers and provides more severe penalties for those who employ or host illegal immigrants.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that around 425,000 illegal immigrants were living in Georgia when the laws were passed – the seventh highest in the nation. Those numbers are now down as hoped, but the state’s economy is paying a heavy price.

The dirty secret everyone knew was that most of the state’s farm workers were immigrants, many of whom were illegal. Some lived in the state; others migrated with the harvest from South Florida to New York and back. Some of the former have moved away while many of the latter bypass Georgia. Without them, farmers lacked about 40 percent less manpower to harvest last year’s crops, according to a study by the University of Georgia.

Despite the high unemployment in the state, most Georgians do not want such groundbreaking jobs, nor do they have the skills required. According to Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Association, immigrants are “fairly professional harvesters,” many of whom specialize in specific crops.

Workers are paid by volume, with skilled workers typically making $ 15-20 an hour. Unskilled workers earn much less, which is why most of the locals don’t want the jobs.

Georgia’s experience is consistent with economic research on immigration. While many Americans believe that immigrants “steal” our jobs and lower our wages, economists find little evidence to support this.

The US workforce has roughly doubled since 1950, but unemployment has not increased in the long run. Most economic studies also find little evidence that increased immigration is depressing US workers’ wages. In the worst case, this could lower the wages of early school leavers, but even there the effect is small.

A simple analysis of supply and demand seems to suggest that as you increase the labor supply, wages will go down. But immigrants do not simply increase the labor supply. They provide skills that most Americans don’t have. As such, they do not replace American workers enough to be able to do other, usually better educated, things. This symbiotic relationship benefits both immigrants and locals.

Georgia’s immigration law had exactly the effect that economic studies could have predicted. Farmers have a hard time finding workers with the right skills to harvest their crops. As a result, Minor says, “Many of the smaller growers have chosen not to grow that many crops or plant any crops.” These reductions affect the state economy and everyone loses.

The Georgian immigration law was of course not just motivated for economic reasons. Many Georgians have also had concerns about the high cost of providing public services to illegal residents: schooling, medical care, law enforcement, and other publicly funded services.

However, there are better ways to deal with such problems than evicting the workforce that is needed.

The Georgian Immigration Law is a blunt instrument that inflicts unnecessary harm on immigrants and native Georgians and makes everyone poorer. Both Georgia and any other state considering a similar law should reconsider.

Benjamin Powell is an Associate Professor of Economics at Suffolk University in Boston and a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, CA.