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Poultry plants have jobs to fill, but workers are scarce
Local companies struggle to find help amid tougher immigration enforcement
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Signs calling for job applications outside of Fieldale Farms Corporation in Gainesville, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

On the floors of a poultry processing plant in Murrayville, workers speak 13 different languages.

Fieldale Farms President Tom Hensley said he estimates about 50 or so refugees and other immigrants come to Murrayville from the metro Atlanta area daily to work in the plant.

“They come up in 15-passenger vans full, so there’d be five or six vans every day coming from Clarkston up to Murrayville and going back from Murrayville to Clarkston every day,” he said.

But Hensley could use 200 more people right away at the company’s locations in Gainesville, Murrayville and Cornelia. It’s a tough job market statewide for poultry employers trying to find workers, Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said.

“It can sometimes be a challenge to fill out the worker ranks that are needed, and that’s been true regardless of the unemployment rate,” Giles said, though he could not cite specific statistics.

Gainesville has a 3.6 percent unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Giles said countries such as Myanmar in Southeast Asia have been mentioned in the refugee employment conversation.

In 2004, Hensley said 70 percent of the workforce across all three locations was Hispanic. Now, that stands at 25 percent. He said the Hispanic workforce has slowly disappeared.

A section of Georgia’s “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011” was the requirement for private employers to register and use E-Verify, a federal work authorization program. 

Giles said the strength of the Hispanic workforce in the poultry industry has varied across the state, as some areas have stayed constant. 

The Times reached out to multiple poultry companies in the area for comment, but those were unsuccessful.

Enforcement on undocumented immigrants has swelled since President Donald Trump took office. There were about 11,000 more arrests by deportation officers in 2017 between Jan. 22 and April 29 as compared to a similar stretch in 2016.

Immigration attorney Rathi Rao said she and many others in the field have seen increased enforcement especially in the 287(g) program, which is a partnership between local and federal authorities. The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is one member of 287(g). Information on detainees can be handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further review for anyone booked into the Hall County Jail.

In 2015, the Obama administration instituted the Priority Enforcement Program, which focused on deporting illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes. Trump issued an executive order Jan. 25 to change deportation priorities, reverting to the Secure Communities policy that had been in force until 2015, and didn’t specify types of crimes when considering immigrants for deportation.

“Before, our clients could get a driving without a license (charge) or a speeding ticket — any sort of traffic violation — and not necessarily get into ICE custody. Now, it’s pretty much routinely if they get any sort of traffic violation, they’re being turned over to ICE. ICE puts a hold on them, and then they end up in removal proceedings,” Rao said.

Rao said it caused clients’ families to become more fearful, as they leave each morning not knowing whether they’ll return.

“It’s the breadwinner who was most likely out and about driving to go to work to provide for the family. When the parent is detained, it’s basically debilitating for the family,” she said.

ICE’s statistics show the removals from inside the U.S. were up to 81,603 in fiscal year 2017 compared to 65,332 the previous fiscal year.

A federal judge ordered earlier this month to allow children covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ program to sign up for renewals.

Rao said the reaction is bittersweet: There is relief that people can sign up again, but families are afraid their updated information is being given to the government.

“We have been encouraging everybody to go ahead and renew and being hopeful that something more permanent will happen,” Rao said.

Rao and attorney Arturo Corso have noticed a trend of cases being reopened that were previously administratively terminated, even for low-level offenses.

Corso said about a dozen of his cases fall under that category.

“It’s been difficult trying to explain to the clients not only are they reinstating your case, but the odds aren’t in your favor,” Rao said.

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Signs calling for job applications outside of Fieldale Farms Corporation in Gainesville, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. - photo by David Barnes
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