Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | June 19, 2011

As It Turns Out, Americans Don’t Want The Jobs Vacated By Spooked Illegal Immigrants

(So much for Americans wanting jobs that are vacated by illegals! What’s next Republicans? You did say that if we got rid of the illegals that these jobs would be free up for us Americans *looking* for work…?

So what happened? Why didn’t it pan out like you first envisioned?)

Twin immigration laws create labor crisis for American farmers

Georgia, Alabama, and Utah are the first states to follow in the footsteps of Arizona, passing laws that expand the power of local police to check the immigration status of residents. Legislators who back the new laws say they’re sending a message that they want illegal immigrants to leave their states, and that the federal government should do more to stop illegal immigration.

Apparently, migrant farm workers have listened, at least in Georgia.

The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association told CNN that after Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law modeled after Arizona’s SB1070 in May, farm workers have fled the area. Some farmers lost as much as 50 percent of their workforce, they say. (The law is already being challenged in court; Arizona’s similar SB 1070 has been blocked by two higher courts.)

Fifth-generation Georgia farmer Gary Paulk told local paper The Daily Journal that he has only been able to find half of the 300 workers he needs to pick his blueberry fields, and that’s after hiking wages 20 percent. Another farmer said he had to switch to (less efficient) machines when he couldn’t find enough workers for his fields this spring.

“A lot of migrant workers who may have migrated to Georgia are avoiding the place,” says Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform Chair Craig Regelbrugge. “The field reports are pointing to significant loss of crops.”

Gov. Deal is now pushing to recruit native-born Georgians to fill the gaps, arguing that the high unemployment rate should make that possible. Nationally, about 85 percent of all agriculture workers are foreign-born, and as many as 70 to 75 percent are undocumented.
Industry insiders tell The Lookout that politicians shouldn’t hold their breath while waiting for Americans to flock to farm jobs.

“Our economists have estimated that in the U.S. economy there are 10 million-plus people who work at wages lower than what they could make in agriculture because they aren’t attracted to the work,” American Farm Bureau Federation government relations director Paul Schlegel said. He says the long hours, irregular employment and physical demands of farm jobs mean Americans would rather work elsewhere for less.

Diana Tellefson, the director of the United Farm Workers union, says when her organization asked Americans to sign up for farm jobs last year–via a dedicated Internet campaign that Stephen Colbert publicized on his show–thousands responded, but only 11 people accepted the offer.

The campaign, called “Take Our Jobs,” originated as a few Arizona farm workers’ response to politicians who said they wanted to pass tougher legislation so that illegal immigrants don’t take citizens’ jobs.

“Few citizens express interest, in large part because this is hard, tough work,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said, according to the AP. “Our broken immigration system offers little hope for producers to do the right thing.”

Anti-illegal immigration groups like FAIR argue that if illegal immigration goes down, wages would go up for farm jobs, and then native-born Americans and legal immigrants would want them. Farmers say they can’t afford to pay more.

Around the country, states are considering a cocktail of measures that both sanction employees who hire undocumented workers and empower local cops to question people about their immigration status.

Arizona’s employer sanctions law was recently upheld by the Supreme Court, which means many more states may soon adopt similar measures. Agricultural advocates say their business is uniquely dependent on migrant labor, and these laws could put them out of business.

Georgia’s new E-verify law–which will require all employers to ensure their workers are documented–may have the most direct effect on farmers. But Regelbrugge says it’s the state’s law that expands police authority to question immigrants about their status that seems to be most spooking migrant workers themselves.

“What’s really happening is there is a climate of fear, there is a climate of concern that–whether the law calls for it or not–racial profiling will happen,” he says. The law forbids officers from racial profiling when they choose who to screen for immigration status.

Regelbrugge says there are also signs of farm labor shortages in Florida, Georgia, Michigan and California. It’s unclear what exactly is causing the dearth of workers, but he speculates that increased border security has kept some migrants who would have returned to Mexico after the picking season in the United States, where they have then moved into other industries. Tougher borders also mean fewer migrant workers are willing to risk coming into the United States to replace them.

While there’s a federal visa program, H2a, to recruit foreign seasonal farm workers, farmers describe it as overly bureaucratic and too expensive. Among other things, it requires farmers to provide free housing that passes federal inspections for workers, when they say some seasonal workers on the border prefer to commute home and do not want to live on the farm. In a survey, 92 percent of Georgian farmers said they don’t use the H2a visa program.

Nationally, Schlegel says the Farm Bureau is most focused on an e-verify law that will be proposed in Congress this year. The group is asking that the agricultural industry be excepted from any proposed employer sanctions law.

“There’s an increasing level of anxiety on the impact it will have on labor availability,” Schlegel says of state-by-state enforcement laws.

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