Charles E. Richardson

Crackdown on illegal immigrants? We've been here before, and farmers suffered

Migrant workers pack onion bags at G & R Farms in Glennville in this Telegraph file photo.
Migrant workers pack onion bags at G & R Farms in Glennville in this Telegraph file photo.

With all the furor over illegal immigration a little history lesson might be in order. As you are probably aware, President Donald Trump has taken another bite out of the illegal immigration apple, I think it’s his third. First he signed an executive order to build a border wall that’s estimated to cost $21.6 billion. Mexico has already told him it's not paying for it so Trump has threatened our southern neighbor with other measures. Trump has also said he wants to hire 15,000 more Border Patrol officers and Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents.

His second bite came in the form of another executive order that was aimed at seven predominantly Muslim countries, but was so ill-conceived that it caught up travelers with valid visas. That effort remains halted by the federal courts.

Now comes his third bite. He’s decided to aggressively enforce our nation’s immigration laws, enlist local law enforcement to help do the job of immigration enforcement, speed up deportations, open new detention centers and expand the definition of criminal activity to include minor violations. These actions should come as no surprise, Trump is doing what he said he would do and the people who voted for him are cheering. I’m not here to debate whether strict enforcement of our immigration laws are right or wrong, but here’s where the history lesson comes in.

It was May, 1998, the sweet Vidalia onion fields had been prepared for harvest — a harvest of some of the tastiest onions in the world. A harvest worth $60 million at the time. That’s when 45 Immigration and Naturalization Service agents swooped in unannounced raiding farms and packing sheds in Toombs and Tattnall counties. Word spread of the raids and workers disappeared into the woods and didn’t return. For three days this valuable crop sat roasting in the hot south Georgia sun before a compromise could be reached between the farmers and the INS.

As reported in The Telegraph, eight members of Congress signed an angry letter drafted by then U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Attorney General Janet Reno, concerning the INS raids. Republican U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, Republican U.S. Reps. Jack Kingston and Charlie Norwood and Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop also signed the letter, protesting “the apparent lack of regard for farmers in this situation and the intimidation tactics being employed by federal officials.” Coverdell called the INS action “the worst of bully government.”

Let’s fast forward to 2011 when the Georgia General Assembly got all caught up and passed House Bill 87. It authorized law enforcement to demand immigration documentation from people they suspected where here illegally and detain them, even if they were stopped for a simple violation. There were also stiffer penalties for businesses that hired illegal immigrants.

Guess what happened? Exactly what you would expect. The law worked. Illegal immigrants left Georgia, but according to a UGA study, farmers were left holding the bag because they had only 60 percent of the work force needed to pick their crops costing them millions of dollars. In 2012, according to the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences, the farm gate value of just the onion crop was $163 million. Agriculture is our state’s No. 1 industry bringing $74 billion to our state’s economic table according to the Georgia Farm Bureau.

Unlike in 2011, when workers could just avoid Georgia, Trump’s crackdown is nationwide. So what are the unintended consequences? Again, let’s look at history. When the raids occured in south Georgia in 1998, the illegals left. In 2011, with HB 87, they left. With this crackdown they will either leave or fall into the shadows. Some folks will say, “That’s alright by me,” until that delicious Georgia peach ends up costing $4.50, if you can find one.

You’ve heard people say Americans will do work now being done by illegals. They tried that in 2011. It didn’t work and I know why. I’ve been on Bracero buses and picked tomatoes, onions and asparagus. It’s hard and hot work. Bluntly put, Americans are too soft — and too slow. And besides, farmers’ business models are built around cheap but experienced labor and if that labor isn’t around, there’s no need to plant what they can’t pick. Think about that.