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Sweeping New Immigration Laws in Georgia and Alabama Impact Migrant Labor Trends

In late 2007, Dr. Cesar Escalante began investigating the effects of the nation’s increasingly stricter immigration policies on smaller organic farmers — produce and grain growers—who lack the finances to either mechanize certain aspects of their business or hire federally recognized foreign guest workers.

Among the major findings from Escalante’s case studies is that as the supply of foreign labor, chiefly Latino undocumented immigrants, has diminished, about 67 percent of surveyed farmers in the five Southern states he targeted said they were having a hard time finding workers. These include two states being sued over their new immigration laws.

Continuing shortages, the study says, would result in a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in the price of commodities.  Smaller farms, Escalante, a University of Georgia associate professor of agriculture and applied economics said, were more heavily reliant on their own families. In one case, a farming couple asked their two offspring to return home from college to help run the operation.

“There would come a point when they exhausted all members of their families and, yet, it was still not enough,” said Escalante, whose research was funded by the Southern Sustainable Agriculture and Education. “The general sentiment is that they all had difficulty finding what they called ‘motivated labor,’ people who would come to work and do the type of work that foreign laborers would do efficiently . . . even if some of them managed to offer higher wages.”


In some instances, farmers were indeed paying more, they told Escalante, whose “When the Seasonal Foreign Workers are Gone” appeared in the March issue of the Journal of American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.


But, as one farmer explained to Escalante three years ago — the day he arrived to find blueberries rotting in her fields —  [non-foreign] people would come, work for an hour and give out. She said some people would stay for one day. They’d complain: ‘It’s so hot.’ ‘We can’t stand it.’ They did only 10 percent of the work that foreign laborers would do. This is a very hard job.”

Besides the proprietors of 10 farms across Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina, which were used as case studies, an additional 85 of 500 requested farmers answered Escalante’s survey.

It has not surprised him that a seemingly unlikely coalition of civil rights attorneys and southern farmers are decrying new immigration laws in Georgia and Alabama that they contend already are driving immigrants — undocumented and legal — away from the region’s ripening fields. 

Most recently, the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Alabama law, approved last month and set to take effect Sept. 1. It bars undocumented immigrants from enrolling in or attending college and applying for or soliciting work, restricts landlords from renting property to the undocumented and requires school districts to determine the immigration status of schoolchildren.


Critics say the Alabama measure, and Georgia’s new immigration law, effective July 1, which outlaws the use of false documents to get a job, is the most sweeping of get-tough-on-immigration measures that have been approved in five states. The others are Arizona, Indiana and Utah. All are being challenged in court.

The laws, migrant advocates and protesting small- and large-scale farmers have said, already have prompted Latino laborers to flee. “Our position is that our members support secure borders,” said Jeff Helm, spokesman for the Alabama Farmers Federation, which represents 48,000 farmers. “But they also acknowledge the need for a stable workforce for agricultural jobs that may be difficult to fill with local workers.”

Although the federal government, aiming to attract more legal workers, allows so-called H-2A foreign guest workers, small farmers, in particular, are finding the cost of doing so prohibitive. The recruitment and hiring of those employees is granted as long as certain wages, provision of daily meals, housing, transportation and other conditions are met.  

An estimated 40 percent of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are farm workers, said Escalante, citing that finding from other researchers. They have steadily replaced a largely Black labor force that left the fields for the cities, said Ralph Paige, executive director of the East Point, Ga.-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives. “The people are from here and still live here do not want to work these fields,” Paige said, noting that field work sometimes commands an average, hourly wage of $12. 

Much of the work, in the agricultural world, also is considered a skill, Paige and others said. 

Peaches, tomatoes, watermelons and other fragile produce are picked by hand, said Dr. James Bannon, director of the outlying unit of Auburn University’s Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, a farming practicum. The annual net sales for Alabama peaches are $3 million, while the figures are $12.2 million for tomatoes and $4.4 million for watermelons, Bannon said. 

Alabama’s immigration law, he said, “Is overkill. Certain legislators, who’ve been in the news media recently, said they’re not going to amend it. But I don’t think they’ve felt the pressure yet.”

He continued: “The claim was that people who are here illegally are taking advantage of public schools and this kind of thing, and not paying taxes into the system. My thoughts? Everyone should strive to be here legally. But there are ways to try doing this correctly, without passing a far-reaching law.

When he began his research, Georgia’s Escalante said, “There were people who thought I was making a big deal out of nothing: ‘Oh, there are people who will do the work if [farmers] look hard enough.’ ‘We’re in recessionary times … ‘ The truth is there are certain farm operations that only foreign laborers are willing to do. If this [immigration law] remains a problem, there are commodities in the market today that we may not see for a while.”

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