Ga.'s New Immigration Law Sparks Farmers' Fears

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Starting July 1st, Ga. will require employers to verify all workers are legal, and police can check suspects' immigration statuses and send illegal immigrants to federal authorities. With undocumented workers reportedly fleeing Ga. by the thousands, farmers are complaining they can't find enough laborers to harvest crops. To learn more about these concerns, host Michel Martin speaks with Paul Bridges, Mayor of Uvalda, Ga., and Jeanne Bonner, who covers the state legislature for Georgia Public Broadcasting.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, President Obama has pledged to bring 10,000 troops home from Afghanistan by the end of this year. We wanted to ask how this and the coming drawdown of thousands more troops might affect the status of women in that country. We'll explore that question in a minute with prospectives from Kabul and Washington, DC, but first Georgia recently joined a growing list of states that have created their own laws to combat illegal immigration.

Georgia's new legislation would allow state and local police officers to request documentation from criminal suspects and take them to jail to begin the deportation process if they don't receive it. After Governor Nathan Deal signed the legislation in May he had this to say to opponents.


Governor NATHAN DEAL: Let me reiterate something important that sometimes gets lost into the media discussions. Illegal immigration is already illegal in the state of Georgia.

MARTIN: But even before the law goes into effect on July 1st it has already sparked a backlash and not just from civil rights groups. Farmers are reporting that without immigrant labor their crops are rotting in the fields and they stand to lose millions of dollars. In a moment we'll hear from the mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, who believes the law will devastate agriculture in his community but first we're joined by Jeanne Bonner. She covers the state legislature for Georgia Public Broadcasting, and she's with us from GPB in Atlanta. Jeanne thanks for joining us.

JEANNE BONNER: It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So, what was the rationale for this law? I understand that unemployment in Georgia's about 10 percent. Was part of the rationale here that illegal immigrants are taking jobs that Americans would otherwise do?

BONNER: Certainly that is - some of the supporters of the bill do believe that, and in fact what they've said is that the bill strikes at the mechanism that attracts and keeps illegal immigrants here which is employment.

MARTIN: But you know there's already a mechanism by which you can - agricultural workers particularly can come for seasonal work. I mean, is it the contention here that most of the people doing agricultural work in Georgia are undocumented or don't have proper documents?

BONNER: Well, I think it's sort of tough to say. Certainly migrant laborers as a general group do the majority of the harvesting and what some of the opponents have said is that this bill - and, you know, everyone is caught up in the dragnet because it'll be difficult to distinguish between who is documented and who's undocumented. And in fact, a lot of the farmers are saying that migrant laborers that in past years came and harvested crops, they're just not showing up, and the thought is that on both undocumented and documented are leaving because they just feel like they'll be a target.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that the governor has encouraged unemployed probationers to work on these farms that had depended on migrant labor. How's that working out?

BONNER: Well, so far there are a relatively small number of probationers working on a relatively small number of farms. But I spoke with the agriculture commissioner yesterday and certainly some of the probationers are saying this work is just too tough, and so maybe they show up, they do a few hours of work but then they leave or they stay for a day but they don't come back. And in fact, what labor experts say is that harvesting is actually - it is skilled labor in the since that these migrant workers have been doing it for years.

They've built up skills and they know how to do it quickly and efficiently.

MARTIN: Now, if you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the effects of Georgia's new measures to combat illegal immigration. We've been speaking with Jeanne Bonner. She's a reporter from Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'd like Jeanne to stay with us.

Now, I'd like to call upon the mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, Paul Bridges. Mayor Bridges is a strong opponent of the new law and he'll tell us why. Mr. Mayor thanks for joining us.

PAUL BRIDGES: Hi Michel, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When you heard that this measure was being contemplated, did this concern about agricultural labor, was that foremost in your mind?

BRIDGES: Actually it was well underway and already passed one of the chambers whenever I became aware of it. There were hearings held in this state about this bill but they were all held in Atlanta, so the southern part of the state was not really aware of, so much aware of the bill itself and its impact on us economically or socially.

MARTIN: What do you think the impact has been or will be? Why don't you just tell us what's happening right now?

BRIDGES: Clearly the impact has already occurred where we have documented and undocumented people leaving and there are berries in the field, as Jeanne said, rotting. But the major concern economically is for the coming year, you know, for the planting and the harvesting when we do not believe in any fashion that the prospect of having community service or probationers do this work is an answer. It simply cannot be the answer.

MARTIN: Because you actually have to train people to do it.

BRIDGES: Yes, they are - as she said, this is skilled labor and they've created a mechanism to do it efficiently and rapidly in order that at the end of the day the product that they've produced paid by the piece is sufficient to have them have a desire to return tomorrow or next week, and that's just not true with an unskilled person or a community service person. And the elements themselves are a big factor. The heat index is extreme here.

MARTIN: And tell us about which crops are most affected and in fact, also you've mentioned earlier that this absolutely the worst time for this to have happened. Tell us why.

BRIDGES: Well, the products have to meet the market. If they aren't at the market, they get lost. All of the profits are lost and the bills have to be paid and these farmers are not able to meet their obligations because they're not able to meet this small window of marketability of their product.

MARTIN: So, how short do you think the farms in your area are? Can you just give us a ballpark estimate of how many more workers do you feel that the farms in your area need than you actually have or than they actually have?

BRIDGES: Well, I'm not real good with numbers on those sort of things but I will tell you that without exception each farmer that I've talked with are lacking in the number of hands that they need to have their product processed.

MARTIN: So, you're saying every farmer who's talked to you says he's short, he or she is short.

BRIDGES: That is correct, yes.

MARTIN: Now, and again I wanted to ask you a question I asked Jeanne Bonner earlier which is there are federal visa programs that do allow farmers to bring migrant workers legally there are specific visa programs for this. Is it that farmers weren't taking advantage of them, or these workers weren't coming here under those programs? I mean...

BRIDGES: Well, this is - there's a two-pronged issue with that. One is many farmers tell me that that program doesn't work because several of the farmers have small acreages of produce to be harvested and that program is extremely cumbersome to complete. Now, some of the larger onion farmers who have acres and acres have been able to successfully use that program, but the majority of the smaller farms just - it's just a cumbersome program to use. And the other part of this is that we have people who have been here for several years.

They have made this their home and within their families they can have someone who's documented, someone's who undocumented and even citizens in that same family who have been here for years and those people...

MARTIN: I think we've lost Mr. Mayor. Let's try to get him back, and Jeanne, are you still with us? Let's turn to you. Mayor Bridges was telling us that - that was one of the questions I was going to ask is there are - why - what are the illegal immigrants saying? And what he's saying is that some of these families are blended. That a number - that within the same family you have people of different legal status some of whom are citizens, some of whom are legally authorized to work and some of whom are not. And so, is the argument here that now everybody's not showing up?

BONNER: I think there's a lot of - what the farmers have said is there's a lot of fear. And there's also some of the Latino groups have been holding information sessions on the new bill. And they're trying to actually sort out fact from fiction. So folks can get a better idea of what the bill actually will do. But nonetheless, certainly you have families that are blended and I think that some of them are just figuring, well, we might as well all leave just, you know, just to be on the safe side.

There's also the sense and the ACLU and other human rights groups have filed a lawsuit and they're requesting an injunction to temporarily block the law before it goes into effect July 1st. And their argument is that the law gives so much discretion to local law enforcement that people who are here legally are also, you know, going to wind up being penalized, at least to the extent to which they may be stopped and detained.

MARTIN: But what I'm hearing from Mayor Bridges, I understand you're back with us, is that people aren't showing up now. The law isn't even in effect now. And people aren't showing up now. Is that right?

BRIDGES: That is correct. People have left and are still leaving. And others are making plans to leave. Yeah.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, do I have this right that you're a Republican like Governor Deal?

BRIDGES: I am a Republican, yes. But this is not a Republican, Democratic issue. This immigration issue is a heartfelt issue. It's a main issue in Georgia. I heard the presentation of the state to the federal judge, and the attorney for the state said that we spend millions of dollars in the penal system to house the prisoners and we spend millions of dollars at the hospital emergency rooms because of immigration.

And I contend that those are not immigration issues. If the prisons have an undocumented person in them, then it is a penal issue, not an immigration issue. And the people at the hospitals would be a health care issue, not an immigration issue.

MARTIN: The only reason I brought that up is I wondered whether you can had gotten any criticism from, say, Republican supporters of the governor or even your own constituents for your vocal stance on this bill. That's all I was wondering, within your own party.

BRIDGES: I have not received any criticisms from anyone within the Republicans.

MARTIN: What's next for you and for the people in your area? And do you farm yourself?

BRIDGES: Well, I have a little garden. I'm a farmer at heart. And...

MARTIN: And so, what's next?

BRIDGES: Well, we hope that the judicial system will understand the ramifications that this law is going to have. Not only on the undocumented, but those documented and the citizens. And those of us who are imbedded in the community here.

MARTIN: Paul Bridges is the mayor of Uvalda, Georgia. He was nice enough to join us by phone from his home office there. We also heard from Jeanne Bonner. She reports for Georgia Public Broadcasting. She's been reporting on this issue. And she joined us from the GPB studios in Atlanta.

Thank you both so much for joining us. Jeanne, Mr. Mayor, thank you both so much.

BRIDGES: Thank you.

BONNER: Thank you.

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