During my final semester of business school at Emory University, I studied the economic implications of Georgia’s immigration reform, HB 87. Data from the federal H-2A guest worker program, unemployment statistics, and Georgia crop figures informed my analysis. My professors suggested using an economic framework called Hecksher-Ohlin — which models production outcomes among countries — to arrive at basic predictions.
Those predictions for the short run appear to have been correct. Nearly half (46 percent) of Georgia farmers surveyed by the Georgia Agribusiness Council are experiencing labor shortages as immigrant workers no longer feel comfortable here. Farmers have responded by offering wage inducements in an attempt to avoid failed harvests.
Yet a report submitted to Gov. Nathan Deal by the state’s agricultural commissioner indicates that thousands of jobs remain available. The result is lost crop production.
The model’s long-run prediction is a rotation out of the types of labor-intensive crops that have recently been affected and where immigrant laborers have traditionally supplemented domestic workers.
Farmers may instead choose to plant crops for which capital equipment is used during harvest if they sense that the availability of labor at affordable wages has been permanently diminished. This would result in reduced domestic employment as complementary parts of farming production lines, such as those devoted to crop packaging, are eliminated.
The stakes are high because some of these crops — such as Georgia peaches and Vidalia onions — are symbols of the state’s agricultural economy. A possible solution is increased participation in the H-2A guest worker program.
In recent years, Georgia has already been the second-largest participant in this federal program as measured by authorized workers. The program has strict requirements, however, and Georgia appears to struggle in some respects as application denial rates are higher than national averages. The program is harder to navigate for small farms without the requisite administrative help or which may not have the facilities needed to house hired workers.
It is likely that even with increased participation in the H-2A program, Georgia farmers will be at a disadvantage as competing states will be viewed as more welcoming.
Of course, other states are considering immigration reform measures similar to those passed in Georgia, Arizona and now Alabama. Farmers in these states, recognizing our experience, may accelerate their H-2A participation and ultimately strain the capacity of the program.
Immigration policy is complicated, but it doesn’t have to be divisive. My research was humbling. Immigrant farm laborers work hard and sacrifice time away from their families in the pursuit of a generational investment — the likes of which I am a fortunate beneficiary.
As our leaders consider how best to proceed, let us respect the values that fuel our prosperity and take pride that, despite all of our problems, this is still the best place for those who hold them dear.
Ryan W. Barnes of Columbus is a graduate of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.