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Immigration bill worries many in Georgia agribusiness

Donald Chase and his father farm 1,600 acres in Macon County, and if proposed immigration rules being considered by Georgia lawmakers go into effect, Chase and lot of farmers are worried it will cost them more than time and money.

Some farmers say it could put them out of business.

While the immigration rules intended to stem undocumented workers would affect many private employers, agriculture is the state’s largest industry -- valued at more than $11.3 billion in 2009 -- and would be one of the hardest hit.

At the heart of House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40, as originally written, is that employers will be required to use E-Verify -- a federal online employment verification program -- to confirm the legal status of employees to work in this country. It would not apply to farmers who use the H-2A program, sometimes referred to as the federal guest worker program, which allows farmers to fill temporary jobs with non-U.S. citizen workers.

E-Verify, authorized in 1996, is administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service and compares information from an employee’s Form I-9 -- Employment Eligibility Verification -- to data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to confirm employment eligibility.

Although currently a voluntary program in most states, E-Verify is mandatory for employers with federal contracts or subcontracts that contain the Federal Acquisition Regulation E-Verify clause.

If undocumented workers are knowingly employed, employers could be fined or serve time in jail.

“The whole idea is it puts the burden on us as employers to police the whole system when this is a federal issue,” Chase said. “Besides putting an undue burden on the employer, it puts agriculture at a huge disadvantage. I don’t want to be locked up.”

Chase Farms Inc. raises peanuts and corn and has a poultry operation. This past week, Chase was spraying a field of winter rye off Pine Level Road near Montezuma to prepare the field for planting corn in a few weeks. Nearby, a crew was working on an irrigation system.

When Chase hires Hispanic workers to work on the farm, he asks for proof that they are in this country legally and he withholds all required taxes and Social Security based on the law, he said. Immigration laws have many exceptions and are complicated to follow, he said.

“If they want to send them all back to Mexico, then send them all back to Mexico,” Chase said. “If they want to provide some tool for citizenship, I’m OK with that.”

Rodney Dawson, who farms about 1,500 acres of peanuts and 5,000 acres of cotton in Pulaski and Wilcox counties, said he uses eight to 12 immigrants, mostly for the cotton harvest. He does not go through the H-2A program because he only needs the workers for up to 10 weeks.

Dawson is concerned about having to use E-Verify and fears it will keep immigrants -- even legal ones -- from working here.

“I don’t know where we’ll find the workers,” he said. “You can’t find people from here who are interested in the type of work (immigrants) will do for us. ... When it’s 100 degrees, they don’t mind working.”

Dawson said he supports something that would keep people from entering the country illegally.

“But we need some type of system that lets immigrants come into this country to work, because we need them,” he said.

Legislators discuss farm worker programs

Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, said during a House Rural Caucus discussion last week that agriculture and small business in the state needed a “W-Verify” -- a play on E-Verify -- as a way to check people who are willing to work on farms.

“If we had a list of those people, I’d like to get it because we’re trying to find them every day,” Tolar said.

Tolar elaborated that agriculture is not just peach fields and poultry farms; it’s a bigger web that includes industry and services like cotton ginners, peanut mills, and agricultural retail and financing. All of that ultimately depends on workers under the sun.

Tolar said HB 87, authored by Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, is a good bill.

“We’re just having disagreement on this one particular issue” of E-Verify, Tolar said. “If you’re hiring someone without an I-9, you’re in violation of federal law. And if you’re already in violation of federal law, E-Verify is not going to do anything to affect you. “

He acknowledged that it is possible to get legal labor under the agricultural guest worker H-2A visa program, which requires employers to provide transport, housing, at least $9.11 per hour, and worker’s compensation insurance. By Tolar’s calculation, that drives labor costs from somewhere between $7.50 and roughly $9 per hour to $13.50 per hour and requires a pre-order with the federal government. About 20 farms in the state do that, he said.

Tolar said federal programs that help employers hire temporary workers are “essential,” but added that only the federal government can change them.

The jobs, “honestly, they’re not all that desirable,” he said. But the industry is becoming more dependent on the dexterity of human hands in vegetable fields that are taking over machine-harvestable commodities like peanuts and cotton.

“We have a very difficult process of getting workers now because they don’t show up,” Tolar said. “And the ones that do show up, we got to run through an extra hurdle? That’s why we disagree with this.”

Jon Huffmaster, legislative director for the Georgia Farm Bureau, said at the same meeting that E-Verify is too burdensome for farmers. He passed out copies of the 82-page user manual to prove his point.

If E-Verify says a person might not have their papers, the worker has 18 working days to settle the issue with the federal government, Huffmaster said. In the meantime, the employee stays at work.

“You as the employer have to go back and forth and check E-Verify, he said. “It’s not like they contact you. You have to go to the website and log on and check each case for yourself. “

Huffmaster conceded the program is probably doable for any company big enough to have a human resources department, but “for small businesses and for farmers, we just believe it’s going to be a more cumbersome thing than a lot of people tend to think.”

Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, opined in the ensuing discussion that there is a difference between people who move to a specific place versus who she called “true” migrant workers, who follow the harvest from Florida to the Great Lakes in a season.

“We need some sort of permit for true migrant workers,” Houston said.

House bill author Ramsey, sitting in at the meeting, said he is hearing complaints about E-Verify.

“There are 20 sections in the bill,” he said. “Is it truly just the E-Verify? If it’s just E-Verify, tell me it’s just E-Verify. Because I want to know exactly what kind of parameters you’re concerned on. If it’s down to the implementation of E-Verify, we’re just going to have to talk about it.”

Committee hearings are already under way on House Bill 87, but no hearing date has been scheduled for Senate Bill 40.

Finding farm workers a tough job

The majority of farm immigrants in this country are Hispanic, and the total Hispanic population in Georgia is 780,000, which is 8 percent of the total state population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

As of March 2010, there were 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, which is virtually unchanged from a year earlier, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The largest group of undocumented immigrants is from Mexico.

According to a variety of sources, there are anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 undocumented immigrants living in Georgia.

Farmers have a hard time finding workers now that want to do the physically difficult labor required, and many feel the new rules would make it even harder.

“The people who catch my chickens, they are contract workers for either Tyson or Perdue who are Hispanic,” Chase said. “Nobody wants to catch chickens, and so I don’t know what happens to those guys. In the farm sector, it appears the Hispanics are much more willing to do the work than perhaps anyone else.”

One of the issues many farmers have with E-Verify is that employers must hire a worker before they can search the federal system to verify the employee’s work status.

Another issue is the employer must have a designated person who must be trained on the E-Verify system and know all the guidelines and regulations before the employer can be registered as an E-Verify user.

“It’s adding just an additional burden that’s not required at the federal level,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association based in LaGrange. “And we are depending on a federal program that may or may not be funded. ... I read something that said if everyone in the U.S. was required to do mandatory E-Verify, there would be something like 200,000 people a year who would have to go to the Social Security office to get paperwork straightened out -- and they are U.S. citizens. The system is not accurate, so that’s a big concern.”

Another problem is if Georgia has the E-Verify requirement and other states like Alabama and Florida don’t, it would cause “a patchwork of states that have additional requirements on hiring than other states,” Hall said. “From an economic development standpoint, that’s not good for the state of Georgia.”

Federal programs cumbersome

While farmers who participate in the H-2A program don’t have to adhere to the E-Verify program, the H-2A program presents another level of costly, time-consuming requirements.

Chase said he doesn’t participate in the H-2A program.

“We are fairly mechanized,” he said. “But if (H-2A) were less complicated, I might use it.”

Brian Watkins, who farms about 2,000 acres in Dodge and Telfair counties, has participated in the H-2A program in the past, but “that turned out to be a very big problem,” he said. Watkins had used a contractor to provide the workers, but something went wrong and he ended up responsible.

“It painted a target on us and we had more government inspections than ever,” he said. “And we were trying to do it perfectly.”

Watkins raises cotton, peanuts and corn as well as some cattle. He also usually has watermelons and cucumbers, and at certain times bell peppers and broccoli, he said.

“We do use a lot of Hispanic workers,” he said. “Our payroll is just like it would be for anybody. They have all the right paperwork and everything.”

But the problems with the H-2A program forced Watkins to cut back on his vegetable operation this year.

“We’re not planting any watermelons and we will probably downsize on our cucumbers because of the regulations,” Watkins said. “And it’s getting too hard to find help. ... I just use local (Hispanics) who live here year-round” who have all the necessary legal documents.

“Some of the people they are calling illegals have been working and living here 20 years and raising families, and the government knew they were here for years,” he said. Many of these families have paid into Social Security and payroll taxes for years.

“The federal government took their money for 15 years and now all of a sudden they are going to ship them out and send them home,” Watkins said. “It’s hard for me to sit down here in Milan, Georgia, and say what they should or shouldn’t do, but I know what they are doing now is making it hard for us.”

Rep. Jimmy Pruett, R-Eastman, said something has to be done about undocumented immigrants who tap into state services, but he acknowledged that E-Verify presents problems.

“If you have any reservation” about the status of a potential employee, “you’re not going to run them through E-Verify,” Pruett said. So for him, the statistics that show more than 90 percent of people pass E-Verify are meaningless.

Frank Funderburk, executive director of the Georgia Peach Council and part-time extension agent for Peach County, said the E-Verify program will not affect the peach industry because they are enrolled in the H-2A program. “Our growers can’t afford to not have a work crew,” Funderburk said. “They bit the bullet several years ago (and joined H-2A) and they jumped from paying $7 an hour to $9.”

Funderburk agreed with the farmers who say they can’t find local people to work in the fields and orchards. When the economy slowed and unemployment numbers increased, more locals were applying for farm jobs, but “they couldn’t physically do some of the work. ... It’s strenuous work and nobody in America -- and me included -- wants to do it. It’s either have illegals or migrants that are willing to do it or buy all our food abroad. Not only would it cost more, but there is the whole issue of what has it been sprayed with or fertilized with.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., spoke earlier this month to a large group that included farmers and others in the agribusiness industry during a 2011 Ag Forecast meeting in Macon.

“Immigration is a hot issue,” Isakson said. “I know our state legislature is dealing with that now, but quite frankly, that’s a federal government issue.”

The federal government tried to fix the immigration problem in 2006, but it ended up looking like an amnesty program for illegal immigrants, Isakson said.

“I regret that the states have the burden of trying to deal with it when the federal government is not,” he said. “I am going to continue to see to it that we get an immigration policy at the federal level that is enforced, so you at the state level can depend on a reliable immigration work force that is legal to work in the agriculture industry in Georgia.”

Hall agreed that the federal government should regulate immigration.

“Georgia can’t do anything about (undocumented workers) here, but the feds can, as far as replacing those workers with guest workers,” he said. “That’s why it needs to be done at the federal level and not at the state level.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris call 744-4223.

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