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Georgia Farmers Brace For New Immigration Law

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Georgia Farmers Brace For New Immigration Law


Georgia Farmers Brace For New Immigration Law

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the U.S., the state of Georgia is putting in place a new law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, and many across the state are nervous. The business community fears a boycott. The Latino community fears police officers will abuse their new powers.

And as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, farmers in South Georgia fear the potential cost of the new law.

KATHY LOHR: Georgia is known for its peaches and Vidalia onions, the state vegetable. The specialty crop is produced in just a few counties in the rural southeast part of the state, where the soil is just right.

Aries Haygood with M and T Farms watches a crew of about 50 migrant workers, as they handpick the golden onions in groups of three or four.

Mr. ARIES HAYGOOD (General Manager, M and T Farms): Right now, they're just coming in through the field. They're grabbing the onions out and just clipping the tops and the roots, getting them prepared to bring to the packing house.

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LOHR: It's a labor-intensive process that machines just can't do it because they'd bruise the delicate crop, a $140 million a year industry. This farm has 500 acres of onions with some 80,000 plants per acre. So Haygood relies heavily on migrant workers for help.

Mr. HAYGOOD: Our biggest fear is that because of the way the bill could be structured, that we won't be able to find enough workers to do the work that we need done in a short amount of time.

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LOHR: Just a few miles east, R.T. Stanley Jr. has been growing Vidalia onions since the 1970s. He's also troubled by the immigration law, which he says is already affecting his workers.

Mr. R.T. STANLEY: If they're scared, they'll go to other states instead of Georgia because we have this new law. And I'm worried about that.

LOHR: Stanley says experienced workers can earn as much as $200 a day. He says he's tried to hire locals to do the job, working in the fields eight hours or more, clipping, bending and lifting in the oppressive Georgia heat.

Mr. STANLEY: They just don't want to do this hard work. And they'll tell you right quick. I have them to come out and work for two hours, and they said: I'm not doing this. It's too hard.

LOHR: So it's frustrating for you.

Mr. STANLEY: Very frustrating, and I got my livelihood on the line. If I don't harvest these onions, I'll lose my farm.

LOHR: Some farmers do use the government's temporary worker program, known as H-2A. But they say the system has problems, including red tape and processing delays.

The new Georgia law, patterned after Arizona's law being challenged in court, requires all businesses with more than 10 employees use the federal E-Verify system to confirm workers' eligibility.

Onion growers say they know there's pressure on politicians to do something about illegal immigration, but they're not sure this is the answer.

Joel Salgado is a crew foreman from Mexico. He's here legally and has been harvesting onions for about 15 years.

Mr. JOEL SALGADO (Crew Foreman): The people have to go back to Mexico, you know, they don't want to risk anymore, you know, over here because, you know, they don't have no choice. They don't want to find work.

LOHR: Do people tell you they're afraid?

Mr. SALGADO: Yes. And I know a lot of families that went back already.

Governor NATHAN DEAL (Republican, Georgia): Let me reiterate something important that sometimes gets lost. Illegal immigration is already illegal in the state of Georgia.

LOHR: That's Governor Nathan Deal as he signed the immigration bill. He knows there's opposition, including legal challenges and the threat of an economic boycott, but Deal says the new law is the right thing to do.

He says nearly half a million illegal immigrants estimated to live in Georgia cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Representative Matt Ramsey is the bill's sponsor.

State Representative MATT RAMSEY (Republican, Georgia): It's not just an immigration issue. It's a school issue. It's a transportation issue. It's a health care issue.

LOHR: As the law is phased in over the next couple of years, farmers in South Georgia suggest agriculture workers could be treated differently than others, but Ramsey says that won't work.

Mr. RAMSEY: I don't think we need to start picking winners and losers in the statute and treating industries different, particularly in this time of 10 percent unemployment.

LOHR: But in Vidalia, Aries Haygood says if farmers can't get enough workers, they may have to stop producing crops like onions and peaches.

Mr. ARIES HAYGOOD: We've invested our time and effort into growing our companies, and then all of a sudden, you know, something like this could put this industry out of business overnight.

LOHR: It's unclear exactly what will happen as Georgia begins implementing its new law. Farmers will have to comply. And higher labor and processing costs could mean higher prices for consumers.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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