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Despite disastrous effect on agriculture, Georgia further tightens crackdown on illegal immigration

In spring 2011, the Georgia Legislature approved an anti-immigration bill that made migrant workers so scarce crops rotted in fields due to a lack of harvesters, creating a $500 million revenue vacuum.

Apparently politics is a more powerful player in the Peach State than the ag lobby: On April 24 Gov. Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 160, which expands restrictions in the 2011 law and is designed to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining state driver's licenses, grants, public housing and retirement benefits. The bill, which goes into effect July 1, also outlaws the use of foreign passports to qualify for public benefits unless those passports include paperwork proving the bearer is in the U.S. legally.

The governor signed the bill without comment and his office released no further information on it, but a spokesperson from his office told The Atlanta Journal & Constitution April 24 that "This legislation fixes some of the unintended consequences of the 2011 immigration legislation. This will restore efficiency to government services, such as receiving a professional license, while still safeguarding taxpayers against the costs of illegal immigration."

That spokesperson was referring to a clause in the 2011 law that requires all holders of state-issued professional licenses to present "secure and verifiable" identification -- like passports, birth certificates and driver's permits -- every time those licenses are renewed, annually in many cases.

With the U.S. Congress now considering a bipartisan "pathway to citizenship" for some 11 million immigrants thought to be in the country illegally, SB 160 would appear to be a step backwards for the 440,000 undocumented immigrants believed to make their homes in Georgia -- and for the state's agricultural producers.

The fear from the agricultural community is that the new law will scare away migrant workers -- legal or not -- who have already been spooked by the previous legislation. If that happens, already tight labor supplies will become more so, leading to a repeat of 2011 or worse.

Prevailing thought holds that workers who are in the country legally would rather live and work where they are unlikely to be hassled than in places with stringent anti-immigration stances. And illegal workers, of course, are much less likely to show up for work in a state where they face immediate arrest and deportation.

Georgia has made its position on undocumented aliens crystal clear and a new billboard in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta, puts a fine point on that. The text-only billboard, written incongruously in English, reads "South Carolina welcomes undocumented workers!" and provides directions for contacting officials in that neighboring state.

SB 160 "was bad legislation that's trying to fix bad legislation," Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Executive Director Charles Hall told The Produce News. "It's another inconvenience for folks and another nail in the plank [for labor]. It was just another aggravation. It's going to be hard to tell what the end result will be and what will happen because of this. It's just tightening the noose a little bit and if you talk to the sponsors of the bill, that's what they tried to do. They're not real worried about how it's affecting the agricultural community of this state. When HB 87 hit we had sympathy from a lot of the press in regard to what the farmers were going through, but the general public I don't think will care until the shelves are empty and they can't get produce. That's when they'll wake up."

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black did not return phone calls or answer emails seeking comment on SB 160.

Some of Georgia's major agricultural producers, like Southern Valley Fruit and Vegetable in Norman Park and Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, have made use of the federal H-2A visa program. But that approach is cumbersome enough that only the largest agricultural operations can efficiently utilize it.

In an email to the Journal, Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, wrote, "It is a shame that Governor Deal continues to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment through signing SB160. The law will make Georgia more hostile toward foreigners and make Georgia less competitive in the global marketplace. When the national GOP is moving toward immigration reform, Gov. Deal takes a huge step backward."