LYONS — Georgia farmers who are dependent on immigrant labor have fired a warning shot at state lawmakers considering ways to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Delegates to the Georgia Farm Bureau’s annual convention voted Tuesday to adopt a policy that opposes any state immigration measure that “discriminates against the farm worker” and puts them at a competitive disadvantage. The vote marks the first time the Farm Bureau has adopted an immigration policy directed specifically at Georgia state leaders.
“We think immigration is a federal issue, and it needs a federal solution,” said Jon Huffmaster, the Farm Bureau’s legislative director. “And we think a patchwork of state laws could cause more problems than it solves.”
Farmers are heavily dependent on immigrant labor to harvest crops by hand, particularly vegetables and peaches that are easily bruised and damaged by machines. Huffmaster said farmers in vegetable-growing regions first pushed for the new policy, one of many that was created or revised during the convention at Jekyll Island.
Politicians in Georgia have signaled their willingness to adopt tougher sanctions against the estimated 475,000 illegal immigrants in the state, many of whom work in agriculture. Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, a Republican, said during the campaign that he would support an Arizona-style immigration law. That state approved a measure that requires police officers, when enforcing other laws, to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.
Meanwhile, a committee of Republican lawmakers was created in September to study illegal immigration and its effects on Georgia. The co-chair, Rep. Matt Ramsey, said members will try to fill gaps in state law and add enforcement tools to existing laws.
Ramsey said state officials have been forced to wade into immigration policy because of the federal government’s inaction.
“I would respectfully disagree with any statement that the state has no role in this,” the Peachtree City Republican said. “In my opinion, the status quo is unacceptable, and that is the consensus of the members of the immigration reform committee.”
State Sen. Jack Murphy, a Republican from Cumming and co-chair of the legislative committee on immigration, said he guarantees that farmers’ interests will be taken into account but that the committee would go ahead and propose legislation on immigration at the state level.
“We don’t want to do anything to harm them economically,” he said. “They don’t want a law that’s going to affect them adversely, and that’s understandable. But you can’t just say you don’t want a law period.”
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said he was pleased to hear of the Farm Bureau’s vote. He has spoken before the legislative committee, where he argued that an Arizona-style law would seriously harm the state’s agriculture industry.
“I am glad that the Georgia Farm Bureau is looking at this issue very, very seriously,” he said. “Our legislators should focus their power and influence to urge our U.S. Congress to work on a comprehensive immigration package with President Obama. That’s the real solution.”
The political moves in the Statehouse have worried farmers, an important political constituency because agriculture is Georgia’s largest single economic sector. A University of Virginia study found that Prince William County, Va.’s hardball approach to illegal immigrants had reduced their numbers but created an ethnic divide in perceptions of the county.
The conflicts are easy to spot in Lyons, a small town in southeast Georgia where farmers raise Vidalia onions.
Even in the rural countryside, there are enough immigrant workers from Central and South America to support a grocery store and small restaurant on the town’s main drag. It sells phone cards and Spanish-language CDs.
Aries Haygood, 27, said his farm needs 65 field laborers and 50 people working in a packing house during the height of the onion harvest, which starts in late April. Although it’s unclear exactly what state leaders might do, Haygood said any law that scares away immigrant workers could harm the regional economy.
The farmer said he is willing to hire native workers, but not enough people will labor in the fields. He depends on a private company to send migrant workers with visas to man his farming operation.
“If this plan, whatever they decide to come up with, is not 100 percent right, it could cost some farmers their jobs,” Haygood
said. “Anytime you start telling folks you can be pulled over and asked about your status and you could be asked to leave, folks will stop com-