The Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, signed into law last May by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, cost the state more than $340 million and more than 3,000 jobs, despite assurances from Gov. Deal that eliminating illegal labor would create 11,000 new jobs.
“Georgia should be the poster child for what not to do with E-Verify (Electronic Employment Verification Program) and illegal worker enforcement,” said Charles Hall, executive director, Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. Hall spoke as part of a panel on immigration reform during the Texas Produce Association annual conference last week in San Antonio.
He said Georgia’s enforcement regulations are “similar to Arizona’s, and E-Verify will be mandatory following a two-year phase-in. All employers who have ten or more workers have to use E-Verify by July 1, 2013,” Hall said.
Hall said even before the 2011 fruit and vegetable harvest got underway reports began coming in about labor shortages. “Harvesters either were not coming in or they were leaving,” he said. “A May survey showed that harvest crews were from 30 percent to 50 percent short.”
He said on June 1 Gov. Deal released a statement saying the newly enacted law would “create 11,000 employment opportunities.” He also suggested use of probationers to take up the slack. “The Department of Corrections did a yeoman’s job of helping,” Hall said. But the labor shortage was not stemmed.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued in early June to stop the law. On June 27, a judge granted a stay on two of the most onerous provisions: “Show me your papers,” (requiring any suspected illegal to present documentation) and a provision that made it a felony to knowingly transport an illegal alien.
Hall said before the law took effect Georgia’s unemployment rate was 9.6 percent. After the harvest season, the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent. “And about 40 percent of the fruit and vegetable crop was left in the field because of a lack of harvesters,” Hall said.
That amounted to a $180 million loss at the farm gate. The multiplier effect across the state’s economy resulted in a $340 million loss of state revenue.
Hall said agriculture lost 1,512 jobs and total job loss was 3,260, including truckers and others who deal with fresh fruit and vegetable processing and transportation.
“The assumption that E-Verify creates jobs by getting illegal workers out of the state is simply not true,” Hall said. “We can’t get domestic workers to pick cucumbers.”
He said even before the law went into effect, rumors that the state would put up roadblocks to keep undocumented workers out and that the state would deport illegal aliens kept workers from coming in to harvest in the spring of 2011.
The stay made fall of 2011 and the 2012 season a bit better. The 11th Circuit Court delayed action on the constitutionality of the law until after the Supreme Court ruled on the Arizona law. Following that ruling, both sides have claimed the ruling favored their positions, Hall said. So the question remains to be settled.
“If the law is ruled constitutional, it will cause problems for Georgia. We also expect problems if mandatory E-Verify is put into effect in July, 2013.” He urged other states to monitor their own legislative bodies and, “if they consider similar laws, use the Georgia experience as evidence of what can happen.”
He said more than agriculture was affected by the law. “Tourism, restaurants, construction and other industries were also affected,” he said. For now, these undocumented workers are a central part of the economy and are necessary, “to keep the rest of the economy working,” Hall said. “We have to show legislatures how these workers contribute to the overall economy.”
Eddie Aldrete, with IBC Bank, moderated the panel. In his opening remarks, he said the current focus on enforcement ignores the larger underlying issue. “The emotion and focus on enforcement ignores the big part of the iceberg, the effect on our labor force and the underlying economy,” he said.
“We have a changing dynamic,” Aldrete said. Birth rates are declining in the United States and in other countries. “We are also witnessing a migration back to Mexico.
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” Aldrete said. “With these kinds of laws, we create an economy that makes the labor shortage worse.”
Hall said House Bill-87 was presented as a jobs bill but “created no jobs. We have to have a guest worker program to get workers to come in and harvest our crops,” he said.