As soon as Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a harmful immigration bill into law last year, farmers saw an immediate exodus of thousands of skilled immigrant farm workers. Without enough workers, millions of dollars in crops rotted in the fields because there was no one to harvest them. Officials suggested that farmers could turn to the H2A guest worker program to hire temporary pickers, but that has not worked out for many farmers.
Now, as Vidalia onion farmers begin to harvest their crops, they face the same concerns again this year about not having enough workers to harvest their crops:
For years, Stanley had depended on mostly Hispanic migrant workers to harvest onions. Last year, Stanley says, many of those workers left Georgia following the state’s passage of a tough new immigration law. This is the first harvest since that law took effect.
This year, Stanley and other onion farmers began using a federal guest worker program called H2A. It basically imports workers from countries like Mexico, and then sends them back when the work is finished.
“I had ordered 60 people (via H2A) with the paperwork and everything,” Stanley said. But he said the government botched that request.
“And now I’ve only got 17 people when I’m supposed to have 60. The excuse they gave me was, they lost my paperwork,” Stanley said.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black (R) suggested the H2A program last year could be a way to replace lost workers, but told a congressional subcommittee that improving the program to reduce the red tape would help farmers. And the Georgia Senate unanimously passed a resolution asking Congress to expand the guest worker program so that farmers could hire more workers.
Reforming the guest worker program would not be an immediate panacea for the nation’s broken immigration system, but it could help offer farmers a stable, legal workforce while protecting these foreign workers from exploitation.
But if Deal and Georgia Republicans had stopped to consider how the state’s anti-immigrant law would affect workers and employers before they approved it, then the state could have avoided more than $800 million in estimated farm losses last year. So far, it looks as if Georgia’s farmers could lose just as much this year.