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Crawford: Disaster looms for many of Georgias farmers
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Gov. Nathan Deal recently signed and sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to declare 22 Georgia counties as disaster areas because of crop damage caused by the drought.

With a disaster declaration in hand, farmers can apply for emergency loans and other federal benefits that might help them deal with the current spell of dry weather.

An even bigger disaster could be looming on the horizon for the state's agriculture sector because of another document Deal signed last month: HB 87.

That is the new immigration law that gives police officers added authority to check the immigration status of people they suspect are not legally residing in the state.

While the new law does not take effect until July 1, the publicity surrounding it is already having a major impact on agriculture. Farmers across the state find themselves unable to hire enough of the migrant workers that have traditionally provided the necessary labor to harvest crops like blueberries and onions.

The immigration law is intended to scare away workers who are undocumented immigrants, and it is doing that. But the new statute is also driving away those who have guest worker visas as well. They don't want to deal with local police or sheriff's deputies pulling them in constantly for questioning about their residency status.

The Georgia Agribusiness Council conducted a statewide poll of farmers, nursery operators, livestock owners and agriculture service firms. Nearly half the respondents said they are not able to hire enough workers.

Here are some of the comments noted on the survey:

"Local people show no interest in the types of jobs that we need filled and the few who do apply last only a couple of days before quitting."

"I do understand the need for reform, but this sudden aggressive approach has many far reaching repercussions. Not only to my workforce, but to the local economy."

"I know some of this problem lies more with the federal government, but with the new laws, even my legal Hispanic workers don't want to stay in this state for fear of being harassed ... they stated that they were moving to North Carolina or South Carolina."

"The labor pool has dried up because Hispanics are leaving Georgia as fast as they can. They are terrified about what will happen when this law goes into effect."

Bryan Tolar, the director of the Agribusiness Council, lobbied against the passage of HB 87 last winter and tried to warn lawmakers that they would be putting the state's largest industry in a difficult position.

"This year we've seen workers that have been available in the past that are now leaving," Tolar said. "We're talking about people who have historically done the work who are not making themselves available to do that work. They are leaving the state. That's what's different about this year."

"It's not the law itself, it's the concerns that come with having this new law," he said. "They're leaving because they worry about what'll happen if they get stopped by police."

"When you put out the word that you're sending your police officers to get trained in enforcing the new law, it doesn't take long for that word to circulate," he added.

Tolar is not someone who's using the immigration issue to make a partisan point. He's a conservative Republican who was one of the local delegates to the GOP's state convention last month. He is very concerned about what his colleagues have done to his industry.

"I have yet to have a Georgia farmer tell me, ‘I'm OK on labor,'" Tolar said. "Everyone's short on workers. It's a matter of how much you're short."

There are many people who are understandably frustrated at the failure of Congress to take some long-needed action on resolving the immigration issue. There are also those who don't like the movement of so many foreign-born workers into the state (the estimated number of undocumented immigrants in Georgia now exceeds 425,000).

Having their elected representatives pass HB 87 was one way for these Georgians to vent their anger at the situation. By going after immigrants, however, we also could be blowing up the state's largest industry and doing major damage to Georgia's economy. That seems like a very high price to pay.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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