1:04 PM, Apr 22, 2011 | comments
Onion workers in Toombs County GA, April 20, 2011
VIDALIA, Ga. — It’s the only place in the world that can legally grow an onion and call it a Vidalia.
R.T. Stanley started with five acres 35 years ago.
Now Stanley Farms is a 1200-acre sweet onion producer, with an unmistakably Hispanic work force.
As R.T. Stanley watched his Vidalia onion production gear up this spring, he also kept an eye on Georgia politics. He worried when lawmakers decided to write an Arizona-style immigration law into Georgia’s books.
“I’m worried about the labor situation,” Stanley said. “It could put us out of business in one year. One year.”
The immigration bill has Stanley worried because he fears it will drive off much of his work force. By some estimates, as many as half of Georgia’s onion workers are here illegally.
Jerry Gonzales of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials says R.T. Stanley’s unease reflects that of his workers.
“What will drive (Hispanic workers) away is that perception that law enforcement officials will do roundups of people because of their immigration status,” Gonzales said.
“We do (check their immigration status),” Stanley said. “And we look at all their (federal) I-9 (forms) and all their paperwork and their identification.”
But Stanley says he knows that documentation doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story in a farm working community that’s made a cottage industry of forging documents.
“Those documents are presented,” said Gonzales, “And as an employer, it’s very difficult for him to discern whether those documents are legal or not.”
R.T. Stanley agreed he can’t be completely certain which workers are legal, and which aren’t. “I just know that everything that I look at, they’re legal. But whether I can swear to that, I can’t.”
Stanley says his workers are migrants, who show up during onion season and then move on when the crop is up. He says he boards them at no charge in barracks-style cinderblock housing that Gonzales says is above average for the industry.
The workers fill red buckets with onions — and get paid 38 cents for each one — motivating them to work quickly, all day in a dusty, sun-drenched South Georgia field.
“We try every year to get the locals to do it. They won’t do it,” Stanley said. “They just tell us that they don’t want to do that kind of work and they’d rather be unemployed than to have to do this kind of work.”
“We have ’em come out here saying they’re looking for a job because they’re unemployed,” Stanley continued. “They’ll try it for two hours and go home. That’s exactly the way it is.”
Under the new immigration bill– which Gov. Deal has vowed to sign into law — Stanley worries that next spring, he’ll have fields full of unharvested onions because workers — immigrant and local — won’t show up.