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Our Views: A bitter harvest

A more flexible guest worker program would give farmers a legal labor force

POSTED: January 29, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Last year when Georgia passed a tough new law cracking down on illegal immigrants, it was feared crops would be left rotting in the fields at harvest time.

That prediction came true when many migrant farm workers moved on to other states, leaving Georgia farmers struggling to find enough workers to pick their crops.

The law did as its authors intended: Drive off illegal immigrants with tough law enforcement rules while forcing employers to verify the legal status of their workers.

To say that the problem farmers face was an unintended consequence isn't accurate because it was anticipated. Legislators who supported the law, many from suburban counties far from the state's agricultural heartland, didn't care because their constituents didn't. Perhaps they will when the price of produce goes up.

The bill's author, Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City, says illegal immigrants are a burden to the state. That may be the case in Peachtree City, though it's likely there aren't a lot of migrant workers or cotton fields in that upscale community. It's a long drive from Vidalia, Cordele, Adel, Tifton and Georgia's other farm towns that rely heavily on immigrant labor.

All Georgia farmers want is a chance to hire capable workers to get their crops out of the fields and to market. Few native Georgians want this work, and many can't do it. It's back-breaking, manual labor that has become less desirable to Americans. It is all but impossible to find enough workers living in rural areas who are able and willing to stoop over in the hot sun all day long picking produce.

Thus, the only workers farmers can rely on are immigrants, many of whom do not come here through proper legal channels. Farmers would gladly hire able-bodied legal workers if they were available, but that's seldom the case.

This is the dilemma our nation has created by leaving the back door open at the border and not enforcing its laws over many decades. We have become dependent on these workers to support a key segment of our economy, but we have allowed our laws to be violated as a result.

So how did we get into this mess?

We know one answer: The federal government, Congress in particular, hasn't been able to apply the immigration laws we have, and has failed miserably when trying to pass new ones. Border enforcement has been increased, but not enough. Programs forcing employers to verify legal status remain spotty. And the move to create a more practical guest worker program runs into a roadblock every time it is proposed by those who want to wish the problem away.

There is such a program in place for agriculture and other businesses, but the more we learn about it, the more we see why it is not the best option for workers or those who want to hire them. Because it's run by a federal bureaucracy, it is bloated, complicated and unworkable, and creates more expense for farmers while delaying the process of hiring workers.

The program, known as H2-A, allows both employers and workers to apply for legal status. Yet it is choked by layer upon layer of red tape that few farmers have the money, time or patience to negotiate while their crops ripen.

For instance, H2-A requires employers to recruit and hire domestic workers before foreign workers can apply. Clearly there aren't enough domestic workers to fill those jobs or the farmers wouldn't need to apply in the first place.

It also requires business owners to provide housing for migrant workers, an additional expense that smaller farmers can't afford. And H-2A sets an "adverse wage rate," which is well above minimum wage. So much for letting the free market decide labor costs.

What's the point of having a guest worker program no one wants to use?

As a result, many growers are changing what and how much they plant as long as their labor force remains uncertain. Some Vidalia onion farmers are reducing their crop by 10 percent or more, as are growers of corn, cucumbers and bell peppers. That scarcity likely will lead to higher prices, but so would paying more for domestic workers, even if they were available.

Supporters of H2-A say agribusinesses merely are trying to exploit a cheap labor source by paying low wages. But isn't that the goal of most businesses, to hold costs down so they can keep prices low as well? In fact, many industries move operations overseas to find more affordable workers. If a cheaper labor force is available, that's going to be their first choice.

Some leaders in business and government are asking legislators to revise the new immigration law to ease its effect on growers, but that seems unlikely. The majority of voters and lawmakers who believe fruits, vegetables and meat magically appear at the supermarket don't seem to grasp what the law has wrought. Yet if we can't find a way to make the supply of labor meet the demand, our economy, and our wallets, will suffer for it.

Defining the problem is easy: The U.S. needs to create a legal path for immigrant workers that is more desirable and available than the illegal one. Crossing the border should be difficult, while applying for work in a country that needs the labor shouldn't be as hard as it is. Crafting that solution is another matter when politics and prejudice get in the way.

It's clear that states only serve to push migrant workers from one place to another with their individual laws. Any permanent solution to the problem must come from Washington. But sadly, that's where good ideas and common sense go to wither and die like unpicked watermelons in the South Georgia sun.



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