Opinion: In Tackling Immigration, State Economies Hit the Turf

Immigration may have become a political football, but Charles Hall has another football metaphor in mind when he talks about the skilled immigrants who help put food on our tables.

Hall, the executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, compares migrant workers' conditioning to that of professional football players: "They're in the field eight to 10 months a year, and they're conditioned. They're out there eight to 10 hours a day, often in 100-degree heat."

Skilled farm workers play every position on the field, getting food to tables across America.

In following Arizona's misguided lead and passing its own anti-immigrant law in 2011, Georgia kept many of these migrant workers away. If the state thought it could get by with replacements, reality has been an economic tackle for a loss.

As the experiences of Georgia agribusiness show, states would be wise not to follow in Arizona's footsteps.

Hall notes that in Georgia, growers of seven key crops faced labor shortages of about 40 percent after the law passed in 2011, according to a University of Georgia study. That's about 5,000 missing workers, many of whom were migrant laborers who stayed away for fear of racial profiling and roadblocks after the law passed.

The result was about $140 million in agricultural losses — even though the law has not gone into effect, pending further court proceedings.

And Hall notes that, as crops rotted in the fields, dwindling supplies late in the 2011 growing season drove wholesale prices way up. "The growers that had product got a premium price," Hall says. "For example, growers had cucumbers selling late in the season for $18 to $24 for a 50-pound box, when the average price would have normally been in the $8 to $12 range."

Those losses are the tip of the iceberg, and not just because hand-picked Vidalia onions, blackberries, blueberries, cucumbers, squash, bell peppers, and watermelon aren't the only crops that require grueling, dirty work to harvest. Each job an immigrant fills on the farm creates at least three nonfarm jobs up the line — packaging and transport jobs, for example.

Why not turn to American-born workers?

Well, the data make it clear that Georgia is short 5,000 farm workers with the necessary skills and conditioning. Just like very few of us think we could play professional football, very few native-born Americans think they can be a migrant farm worker.

No machine can do this work, either. "We haven't created a machine with hands that won't damage the crops," Hall says. "Most consumers want a blemish-free product."¦ People want fresh fruits and vegetables on their tables, but they don't quite know how they get there."

Over at the Georgia Green Industry Association, a horticulture trade association, Chris Butts has similar concerns.

"No machine can transplant a rosebush," says Butts, the association's director of legislative, environmental and public affairs. "No machine can mow a lawn, install irrigation, trim around the house."

Employers were complying with existing federal laws, he says, and Georgia's immigration law put those good actors' labor forces at risk. Business owners were not at fault, but they have no way to replace people who left. "It's just a slow bleeding off of that talent and that labor force," he says.

The answer, Hall concludes, is for political leaders to come up with a way for employers to have access to a stable, legal workforce.

That's a far cry from the "Keep Out" message Georgia and other states sent when they copied Arizona's law. Such states may have scored a small victory when the Supreme Court allowed part of that law to go into effect, but as agriculture and other business leaders in Georgia and elsewhere will tell you, they are already losing in the long run.

In a country where 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day for the next 17 years, and all of us will need to eat, our heritage also must be our destiny if we are to remain economically powerful.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. Noorani has more than a decade of successful leadership in public-policy advocacy, nonprofit management, and coalition organizing across a wide range of issues.

For 30 years, the National Immigration Forum has advocated for the value of immigrants and immigration to our nation. In service to this mission, the Forum promotes responsible federal immigration policies, addressing today's economic and national-security needs while honoring the ideals of our Founding Fathers, who created America as a land of opportunity.

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