4/20 – ajc.com – Georgia shoots itself in the onion fields » Comment Page 1 | Cynthia Tucker

Georgia shoots itself in the onion fields » Comment Page 1 | Cynthia Tucker.

WASHINGTON — There are undoubtedly lots of voters who believe the most scurrilous charges against illegal workers — they’ve brought a crime wave to the country; they’re eroding American values; they’re lazy grifters who come here to exploit the social safety net. There may even be a few politicians who believe those things.

But most elected officials know better. They know that most immigrants — including those who crossed the border illegally — shore up the economy, pay taxes and adopt American values. They know that Mexicans and Guatemalans and Bolivians take low-wage jobs in restaurants and poultry plants and onion fields that most native-born Americans won’t do.

Still, those politicians often lack the courage to tell voters those truths. Instead, they pose and pander, engaging in a dangerous nativist rhetoric that thrills the crowds and fills the campaign coffers. And brings in votes.

Such was the case with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who ran a hard-right campaign in a crowded field for the GOP nomination last year. Now, the governor is a hostage to his rhetoric. Though immigrant advocates and business executives have begged him to veto an extreme anti-immigrant measure that passed the Georgia Legislature last week, he says he will sign the bill.

It’s likely to have far-reaching, largely negative consequences for Georgia’s economy, which is already struggling with an unemployment rate higher than the national average. It will hurt the state’s image as an exemplar of a tolerate New South.

And it will hamper the state’s $69 billion agricultural industry, which depends on immigrant labor.That’s why a group of 270 farmers and business executives sent Georgia lawmakers a letter earlier this month urging them not to pass Arizona-style legislation.

They made some logical arguments, but the letter was too little, too late. Georgia’s business leaders share the blame for the ugly mood that swept the Gold Dome this year and left this malicious legislation in its wake.

Anti-illegal-immigration forces have been gaining traction in Georgia politics for several years now. The Georgia Farm Bureau and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, among other business lobbies, should have come out years ago with a major public relations campaign aimed at ameliorating those cruel and misguided forces.

Indeed, the business lobby is largely aligned with Republicans, who control state politics. The GOP walks in lockstep, usually, with business interests who want lower taxes, less regulation and various arcane perks aimed at particular business sectors. So why haven’t business leaders spent the last few years trying to lower the temperature among Republican lawmakers and their constituents?

Perhaps there are many reasons, but one is certainly an unflattering truth they’d rather not discuss: Farmers and landscapers and poultry plant managers are largely dependent on illegal workers. There simply aren’t enough legal immigrants available to do those jobs because U.S. immigration quotas don’t allow very many unskilled laborers into the country.

Oh, the agricultural lobby pretends otherwise. Georgia Farm Bureau’s Web site says that “. . .nothing in our policy supports illegal immigration or amnesty. Georgia Farm Bureau does not endorse illegal activity of any kind. . . .Our policy is intended to oppose laws that might discriminate against farm workers who are legally in this country.”

Well, to be blunt, that’s just balderdash. In the ‘90s, Georgia farmers pressured their Congressional delegation to call off federal agents, who were conducting raids on illegal agricultural workers.

The “amnesty” that the Georgia Farm Bureau derides — in the form of a comprehensive bill granting illegal workers a path to citizenship — would help its members solve their labor shortage. It’s too bad the organization has been too shortsighted and cowardly to put its considerable influence behind such a measure.

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