So far, two major state agricultural associations are not seeking repeal of Georgia’s immigration reform law, but rather hoping the problems it creates will highlight a need for national reform.
In particular, the Georgia Agribusiness Council’s president and the Georgia Farm Bureau’s chief lobbyist speak of a need for a guest worker program that works.
In a June survey by the Georgia Agribusiness Council, 46 percent of the 132 Georgia farmers, agricultural processors and farm service businesses who responded said they were experiencing some degree of labor shortage.
But the first provisions of state House Bill 87 don’t even take effect until July 1.
GAC President Bryan Tolar says that the problem isn’t so much what the state law does as the “fear factor” it has created. Not only undocumented workers, but many who are legal residents themselves but have spouses and other family members with them in the U.S. illegally, are choosing to leave Georgia, he says, for states such as Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina.
“They’re making that choice. And so what are we doing about it? There’s not much we can do about it,” Tolar said. “Some people will say, well, what about going to the governor and asking him to repeal it? The bill was not the reason they’re leaving, so repealing it would not do any good. We’re already wearing the T-shirt.”
Effective July 1
Unless the law is blocked by a court ruling, Georgia’s local and state police will be empowered July 1 to arrest illegal immigrants. People who use fake identification to get jobs could face fines and jail time, and government officials who fail to check their new hires on the federal E-Verify system could be fined or booted out of office.
Provisions requiring businesses to use E-Verify will be phased in beginning Jan. 1, when only the largest employers will be affected.
While the law has yet to take effect, Tolar says the unintended harm has already been done. The GAC estimates that the labor shortage is reducing the direct farm gate value of Georgia’s fruit and vegetable production by $300 million. With the impact multiplied through businesses beyond the farm, Tolar figures there will be about a $1 billion impact on Georgia’s overall agricultural industry, currently valued at almost $69 billion annually.
He likens the situation to a massive highway pileup where nobody will know the final toll until the smoke clears. Recent efforts by Gov. Nathan Deal and the commissioners of the state Labor and Corrections departments to provide alternative sources of farm labor have been encouraging, he said. But Tolar suggests that his organization’s main appeal will be to the state’s delegation in the U.S. Congress.
“We know that we need to take this car crash scenario to the Georgia delegation and say, ‘Y’all have to quit this. This has gone beyond politics. This has gone to the heart of the economy of our state and other states. You’ve got to devise a guest worker program that will work not only for agriculture but for other sectors too,’” Tolar said.
The GAC survey asked farm and agribusiness owners if they have used a federal guest worker program, and only 8 percent said they had, with 5 percent using the H-2A visa program, which is specifically for farms, and 3 percent using the nonfarm H-2B program.
Georgia Farm Bureau would also like to see a workable guest worker program, among other changes at the federal level, said Jon Huffmaster, the organization’s legislative director. As for repeal, he said, nobody is even talking about it.
“We would like to see a comprehensive federal reform of immigration law, which would include a federal guest worker program that is workable, that small farmers can use to fill positions on farms that Americans choose not to do,” Huffmaster said. “Farmers need access to a stable labor supply.”
These industry spokesmen, as well as business owners who responded to the GAC survey, say the current guest worker programs are a bureaucratic nightmare and too expensive, especially for small businesses.
Unlike the H-2B program, which is capped at 66,000 new visas per year, the H-2A program places no limit on the number of foreign workers in agricultural jobs. But the requirements for participation far exceed what farm owners are required to do for domestic workers.
The employer must provide guest workers transportation, housing, and either three meals per day or a place where they can prepare their own meals. Unlike other farm employees, who are exempt, workers’ compensation insurance is required for H-2A workers. To ensure that guest workers do not undercut prevailing wages, the program also requires that they be paid more than the regular $7.25 hourly minimum wage. For Georgia, this Adverse Effect Wage Rate is currently $9.12.
The Farm Bureau did not oppose House Bill 87 in its entirety, but did oppose certain provisions, in particular the requirement that employers use E-Verify.
E-Verify is an Internet-based system used to determine the eligibility of employees to work in the United States. Its use remains optional under federal law, while the older I-9 system, under which employers keep the information on file but don’t report it to immigration officials unless requested, remains mandatory.
House Bill 87 will require the use of E-Verify for Georgia business with 500 or more employees beginning Jan. 1. The requirement expands to business with 100-500 employees July 1, 2012, and to those with 11-99 employees on July 1, 2013. Companies with 10 or fewer employees will remain exempt.
Huffmaster notes that employers can’t use E-Verify to check workers before they hire them, only after.
“A lot of people think it’s a quick and easy way to prescreen employees, to make sure you’re hiring folks that are here legally, and in fact that’s not true,” he said. “That’s not what it does.”
What E-Verify does is check that the Social Security number matches the name provided. If it doesn’t, the system returns a “tentative nonconfirmation.” That isn’t reason to fire someone, but requires that more steps be taken, resulting in paperwork for employers, Huffmaster said.
“Small businesses don’t have the resources, and you’re talking about areas where sometimes you don’t even have good Internet access,” he said.