The state's immigration crackdown has led to a return to the Jim Crow era—and fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields
When Southern farmers faced a sudden shortage of fieldworkers after their slaves were freed following the Civil War, they made a request to local sheriffs: Go out and arrest some healthy-looking African Americans—vagrancy or any other trumped-up charge would do—and then lease them to us as farm laborers. Those convict-lease programs worked out well for the municipalities who collected fees for supplying the workers and for the landowners, but not so well for the men who were forced to toil in the fields.
That loathsome practice was banned by 1923. But it looks as if the state of Georgia is about to take a giant step backward by reintroducing felons to its fields.
This time around, the cause of the worker shortage is not the freeing of the slaves, but a harsh new immigration law enacted by Georgia politicians. Set to take effect July 1, the new policies are modeled closely after the controversial anti-immigration legislation enacted in Arizona last year. Among other things, they give police the power to check the immigration status of criminal suspects.
Nothing if not mobile, many of the 400,000 or so migrant workers (about 70 percent of whom are undocumented, according to United Farmworkers of America) who pick Georgia's onions, cucumbers, watermelons, and peaches decided to bypass Georgia in their northward pursuit of ripening crops this spring.