Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal offered a provocative solution Tuesday for farmers who claim workers have been scared away by a crackdown on illegal immigration: Hire people on probation to toil in the fields instead.They've actually begun a small pilot program to try out the idea, but won't yet publicly discuss the details:
The Republican governor offered his remarks after an unscientific survey showed roughly 11,000 job openings in the state's agricultural economy. He requested the survey after growers warned that a new Georgia law targeting illegal immigrants was scaring away workers needed to harvest labor-intensive crops like peaches and berries that are easily damaged by machines.
State correction officials sent a handful of the more than 15,000 unemployed people on probation statewide to work Monday on a south Georgia vegetable farm as part of a pilot program matching offenders with employers, said Stan Cooper, the state's director of probation operations. Most people on probation are nonviolent offenders.Texas has not yet passed anything close to Arizona or Georgia-style legislation targeting illegal immigrants, and IMO it's precisely because too many large employers rely on them, despite populist (read: nativist) support for doing so. But where such measures have been adopted, it creates a huge gap in low-wage workers, particularly in the Ag sector:
"There was a couple who just left early, just couldn't handle the heat and stuff," Cooper said. "But there were several who stuck it out, seven, eight hours in the field."
State authorities are still finalizing the program details. No farmer will be forced to hire offenders on probation, who must generally seek work unless they are infirm but can turn down job offers. In an extreme case, an offender who continually refuses to take a job could face additional punishment.
[Farmer Sam] Watson said he could only hire two-thirds of the 60 workers he would have wanted to harvest squash, cucumbers and zucchini from his 300-acre farm. He blamed the state's new law targeting illegal immigrants for driving away Hispanic workers. The lack of labor forced him to leave 13 acres of squash to rot in his fields.The problem of course is that farm work is seasonal and probationers need longer term jobs. Plus most probationers are urbanites while farm jobs are by definition rural. So I suspect there are limits to how sucessful such an initiative might be, but I like that the Georgia Governor is looking for creative ways to find jobs for unemployed probationers.
"We've got to come up with something," Watson said. "There's no way we can continue if we don't have a labor source to pull from."
More than half of the available jobs identified in the survey of roughly 230 farmers pay less than $9 per hour and last less than six months. Few growers offered their workers other benefits.
The problems matching probationers with farm jobs bespeaks larger logistical issues with large-scale immigration crackdowns: Before recent efforts to "secure" the border, many illegal immigrant workers were migrants, showing up during harvest time to work, moving from area to area as needed to find jobs, then going home when the picking season was done. Ironically, border restrictions have made illegal crossings more expensive and dangerous, encouraging many such (previously short-term) workers to stay in the United States for longer stretches instead of going home in between job stints, contributing to the situation such laws are aimed at resolving. And as attested by the crops rotting in Georgia fields, those workers actually performed an important economic role that in the modern era can't be easily substituted.