February 12, 2011
Bill Brim is worried about the extra costs he said his fruit and vegetable farm in Tifton would have to absorb if state lawmakers pass tough Arizona-style laws aimed at illegal immigration in Georgia.
Charles Shafer Jr., meanwhile, says the proposed laws could be a step in the right direction, so long as they are enforced here. The Lawrenceville resident said he was forced to shut down his home construction business years ago because he could not compete with others he suspected were hiring illegal immigrants.
Such different views have put state lawmakers in a pickle. While they want to curb illegal immigration in Georgia, the lawmakers also are trying to protect the state’s bruised economy. The problem is that the two issues are closely intertwined.
Illegal immigrants come to Georgia mainly to find work. There were an estimated 325,000 of them working in Georgia last year, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released this month. That represents 7 percent of Georgia’s work force, according to the Washington-based nonpartisan research group, which uses U.S. census data for its estimates. Only six other states — including Texas and California — have higher percentages.
If all illegal immigrants were to leave Georgia, the state would lose $21.3 billion in economic activity, according to a 2008 study done for Americans for Immigration Reform, a Houston-based, business-sponsored group that supports changes to current immigration law.
At the same time, critics argue illegal immigrants are crowding local jails in Georgia and sapping the state’s taxpayer-funded resources, including its public schools.
Both bills now moving through the state Legislature — House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40 — would require many private businesses to use a federal program called E-Verify to confirm whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States. SB 40 includes an exemption for farmers and other employers who participate in federal guest worker programs, which allow noncitizens to legally work in the United States.
Brim, the Tifton farmer, said he participates in one of those guest worker program called H-2A. He said that program helps him bring more than 450 workers from Mexico and El Salvador to work on his vegetable farm. He said his farm covers about 4,500 acres in Tifton and raises cucumbers, squash, eggplant, watermelon, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, some of which are sold in Atlanta area grocery stores.
Brim said the H-2A visa program is cumbersome and is costing his business “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” which includes the costs of transporting and housing the migrant workers. He is concerned the E-Verify system would be incompatible with the federal guest worker program and create more work and expenses for his business.
“It’s an additional cost,” said Brim, a board member and past president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “It’s not free for you to hire that employee to sit there and make those calls and do all this documentation and paperwork.”
Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City, who is sponsoring HB 87, has defended the E-Verify program, saying it is quick, easy to use and compatible with federal guest worker programs. His bill, however, exempts businesses with fewer than six employees from a requirement to use E-Verify.
“We want to make sure,” Ramsey said, “we are not putting an undue burden on what are truly the mom and pop businesses in our state.”
Shafer, the former homebuilder from Lawrenceville, said he used to make $10,000 or more a month framing houses before he shut down his business around 2000. Now he does part-time construction work for his brother.
He said he would rather be working more. He said he declared bankruptcy in 2003 and lost his home to foreclosure in 2009.
“I couldn’t compete against the ones who were working the illegals in the framing business, and I chose not to work the illegals to do it,” he said. “Over the last 10 years, I have lost two trucks … and I’m struggling to keep one now. And I lost my house.”
Last week, the author of SB 40 — Republican Sen. Jack Murphy of Cumming — suggested some pain for employers is unavoidable in cracking down on illegal immigration.
“Do we want immigration reform or do we not want immigration reform?” Murphy said. Georgia employers, he said, “are going to have to figure out a way to make sure the employees they are hiring — even for seasonal work — are here legally. And there is a way to do it. It is just going to be uncomfortable for them to do it.”
Murphy made that statement after sitting through a nearly two-hour-long hearing that didn’t appear to bode well for his legislation. All six people who spoke about his bill were critical of it. Among them were business groups, who urged lawmakers to move carefully so they won’t harm the state’s economy.
The most vocal of these groups has been the state’s $68.8 billion agricultural industry, which relies heavily on migrant labor. That industry — the state’s largest — represented more than 383,000 jobs in Georgia in 2009, according to the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development at the University of Georgia.
A day after the hearing on Murphy’s bill, the head of the Georgia Farm Bureau forcefully declared enforcement of immigration laws is a federal responsibility. Georgia Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall warned the consequences for Georgia’s economy could be severe if the state is made to appear anti-immigrant.
“We encourage the state of Georgia to assist farmers to obtain legal workers instead of threatening them with fines and imprisonment because the federal government has failed to handle its responsibility,” Duvall said at a Georgia Farm Bureau luncheon Tuesday. “This problem is a failure of government, not of employers.”
Gov. Nathan Deal weighed in on the immigration-related bills the same day after speaking at the Georgia Farm Bureau luncheon, saying he wants to investigate concerns he has heard about E-Verify’s reliability and accuracy. He said he doesn’t want the state to create any “undue burden” on employers. At the same time, Deal indicated he did not favor exempting certain industries from a requirement to use E-Verify.
Last week, lawmakers also heard from several groups who are pushing to boost enforcement against illegal immigration. Among these groups are the Georgia Tea Party and Jobs for Georgians, a construction industry advocacy group.
“The construction industry has really been decimated with these illegal immigrants working on these construction sites,” John Ciancia, chairman of Jobs for Georgians, said during a committee hearing last week on House Bill 87. “We are getting shut out because of our wages. They are … abusing these folks and paying them a lesser wage.”
Murphy said he is sensitive to the concerns businesses have raised about his bill, calling his legislation “a work in progress” and saying revisions were on the way. Ramsey, who is sponsoring HB 87, said he also is revising his bill.
“While I want to restrict the number of illegal immigrants who try to work in Georgia,” Murphy said, “I do not want to put undue stress on any businesses to do that.”