A large group of Georgia's farmers and agricultural leaders have spoken up about the possible negative effects that immigration legislation could have on their businesses and the state's economy.
House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40, the proposals now waiting for approval during the 2011 legislative session, could make it harder for them to do business, according to a letter signed by 270 agriculture businesses.
The letter, delivered to state lawmakers Monday, includes signatures from farmers, landscapers and many of Georgia's large agriculture associations.
"There's a big problem with immigration, and reform needs to happen, but people also need to understand that the current system doesn't work and that immigrants are the only people willing to do this work," Stu Brown, owner of Bio Lawns in Bogart, said Tuesday. "Everybody's on their high horse about it, but there really aren't any good options to help these people become legal."
Brown signed the letter, along with the owners of Baker Environmental Nursery in Hoschton, Downey Trees Inc. in Cumming, Nature Care Landscape in Cumming and Landscape Plus in Oakwood. Unlike Brown, many owners still are hesitant to speak about the controversial subject and declined to comment Tuesday.
"If landscapers and companies are fined for using illegal labor, I don't see how that's helping our economy at all," Brown said. "I don't use illegal labor. But I know they will work harder than anybody and they could really help my business succeed. I'd love to pay taxes on them as labor, but there are no options available."
The letter also raises concerns that the bills would give police greater power to question suspected illegal immigrants and require business to verify the immigration status of new employees through the federal program called E-Verify.
"The General Assembly wisely requires fiscal notes for bills with financial impact, yet none have been produced for the bills addressing this issue — one with significant impact on business and agriculture as well as state and local government," the letter states. "While we encourage all businesses to abide by federal law and only hire legally documented workers, our state's unemployment rate still leads the nation, and we should look for alternatives to adding new costly mandates that could discourage legal job creation."
HB 87 sponsor Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, has called the letter a "scare tactic" and dismissed concerns about the potential costs. E-Verify is a free federal program.
The focus on E-Verify is one reason why Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, didn't add his name to the letter.
"One of the points made in the letter related to the E-Verify mandate, and while the letter raised other valid issues, it isn't surprising that the media attention and reaction to the letter would focus in part on E-Verify," Giles said Tuesday. "Poultry companies already use E-Verify voluntarily, and the federation has not opposed this part of the bill. Given that, I was concerned that signing the letter would have sent a mixed signal to the legislature about our position on E-Verify."
However, the letter pulled support from big groups such as the Georgia Farm Bureau, the Georgia Urban Ag Council, the Georgia Peanut Commission, the Georgia Pork Producers Association, the Georgia Tobacco Growers Association and the Golf Club of Georgia.
"It's unfortunate that we've reached this point," Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, said Tuesday. "We've been dealing with this daily for about two months to find ways to help change the legislation and focus on components about state government and state contracts, but they've resisted us at every turn."
Tolar and others pulled together the 270 signatures in 24 hours before sending the letter to lawmakers.
Tolar noted that other industries in Georgia will likely send similar letters before the legislative session ends next week.
"I understand there's a story to be told about illegal immigration, and we don't support illegal immigration, but there's another part of the equation here," he said. "We don't feel like employers are getting a chance to be adequately considered."
Tolar also questions the timing of the legislation.
"When the state takes action on this, they have to deal with the consequences. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube," he said. "Like the tax reform and prison reform questions, we don't have to make a decision about this next week. There are a lot of components and impacts, and we need to understand them before we make a move."