Governor Nathan Deal says he will soon sign stricter immigration rules into law. Farmers say they won’t know the whole impact of the bill until the state fully implements it two years from now. But some agriculture experts say it may change what crops the state produces.
That's because the immigration bill would require businesses with more than 10 employees to use e-verify, a federal citizenship verification system, to determine if a prospective worker can work legally.
Charles Hall, head of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says if farmers can’t employ large numbers of migrant workers they may stop growing:
“Squash, cukes, tomatoes, eggplant, Vidalia onions, and any fruit we grow in Georgia, and we grow peaches, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries. You know, potentially it could affect production levels for those,” he said.
Such crops are sold to the public at farmers markets and supermarkets, Hall said, and that means they can't have any of the bruises or scrapes that mechanical harvesters can produce.
Instead, Hall says farmers could switch to so-called row crops such as cotton and peanuts that machines can harvest. But that would mean the state would cease producing some of its most high-profile crops, including peaches and Vidalia onions.
Hall said much will be determined by how the state implements the law. But he adds the bill could also spark a manual labor war with states like Florida that don’t use e-verify.
Rep. Matt Ramsey, the Peachtree City Republican who sponsored the bill in the General Assembly, has said the legislation will open farming jobs back up to locals. But in an interview on Tuesday, Hall said American-born workers don't want the physically-grueling agriculture jobs that migrant workers fill.
"You just can't get the workers in rural South Georgia," Hall said.
Gov. Deal will likely sign the bill this week before he leaves the country on Saturday. He says it doesn’t go as far as Arizona’s statute that’s tied up in federal court over its constitutionality:
“I believe the General Assembly was very careful to look at what was in the Arizona statute and to not include some of the provisions that were the most controversial in that state’s law," he said Monday. "They are not included in the Georgia statute. So I think we have avoided much of the criticism that Arizona heard.”
Deal said the federal government needs to address the issue of illegal immigration. But since it hasn't, he said, states such as Georgia and Arizona have been forced to act.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Georgia over the weekend and she reiterated that the constitution says the issue of immigration is a federal, not a state, responsibility. But she championed the use of e-verify, which is a key part of Georgia's immigration bill.
Napolitano also said the DHS is conducting more audits of employers to verify they are not hiring illegal immigrants.
“That’s important because a lot of this illegal immigration, the demand is employment-related," she said. "We have to deal with the demand factor as well as what may be coming across our border.”
Napolitano refused to comment on Georgia’s new immigration bill.
Deal said he does not think the bill will produce the dire economic consequences that opponents have predicted. Arizona faces boycotts from groups that plan business conventions as well as others.
Georgia’s tourism industry and some business groups oppose the measure, saying it sends the wrong message about Georgia.