Civil Liberties

Forced Labor? Georgia's Anti-Immigrant Law Is Pushing Probationers Into Farm Work

Draconian anti-immigrant laws have pushed immigrants out of farm work in Georgia. The solution? Push people on probation into those jobs.

Georgia convicts who hoped to get a break from forced labor on probation have a unpleasant surprise waiting for them if a proposal to use probationers as field hands proceeds as planned, which seems highly likely since the Georgia Department of Corrections is already touting it on the front page of its website.

Trapped in a racist and xenophobic regulatory tangle of its own making, the state has decided to meet a critical shortage of farm labor created by one of the most draconian anti-immigration laws in the nation with the home-grown fruits of the prison-industrial complex. These lucky Georgia peaches can engage in some of the most hazardous work in the United States, or face a return to lockup.

The labor problems in Georgia started on 14 April, when the Georgia legislature, inspired by Arizona's SB 1070, passed an extremely aggressive anti-immigration law that included its own version of Arizona's “papers, please” legislation, and a mandate to use E-Verify, a program that requires employers to run background checks on all new hires to determine whether they are legally allowed to work in the United States. The program's error rate has been heavily criticized, but lawmakers across the United States are convinced it is the solution to all our problems. Alabama got so fired up by the Georgia law that it adopted one of its own, earning the dubious distinction of passing what is possibly the worst anti-immigration law in the nation.

In Georgia, the eager adoption of E-Verify hasn't solved problems, it's created them. Although a judge recently ruled that some components of the law, scheduled to take effect this Friday, should be struck down, the state is moving forward with the E-Verify provisions. Protests and arrests continue, with some activists concerned that the recent court victory may mask the very serious problems with the parts of the legislation that will be left intact.

The climate of fear so crudely cultivated by the law even before it goes into force has driven undocumented and documented immigrants alike out of Georgia, and the result is a critical shortage of agricultural workers. Crops are rotting in the fields for lack of farmhands, giving the lie to the suggestion that undocumented immigrants are out to “take American jobs." Here's an agricultural industry wide open and ready for workers, without a single eager job-seeker in sight, even in a crushing economic recession in a state with an almost 10 percent unemployment rate.

Almost 12,000 farm jobs are going unfilled in Georgia, and Governor Nathan Deal has proposed a solution: put probationers to work in the fields. News of the proposal has spread like wildfire through the activist and agricultural communities, and the reception has not been universally friendly. Immigration and anti-racist activists are concerned with the racial overtones of the proposal; labor advocates are worried about the potential for abuse, given that labor protections for farmworkers are thin on the ground and attempts to promote farmworker welfare often end in defeat; and prison abolitionists wonder about the implications of a probationer labor program in the context of a nation that relies heavily upon prison labor as it is.

Farmers, for the most part, are not impressed. Almost as soon as the news broke, they were complaining about having convicts foisted upon them. Interviewed by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Gary Paulk remarked that probationers should try finding jobs as cooks in the governor's mansion first, before being dumped on the agricultural industry, and suggested that despite the significant role played by agriculture in Georgia's economy, it's treated as a “red-headed stepchild.” Apparently farmers will take rotting crops over “bad people around [their] young 'uns,” illustrating a shocking lack of knowledge about the probationer system, which focuses on nonviolent offenders.

There's a loaded history behind this proposal. With the passage of the 13th Amendment in the United States, slavery was outlawed, leaving farms in the South with a serious shortage of available farm hands. Georgia led the way with a novel solution in 1868: convict leasing. Other states quickly picked up the model, using disproportionately black prison labour for all their farming needs. Writing in 1893, Frederick Douglass pointed out the complex dualistic relationship between convict leasing and lynch laws in the South, and the fact that the majority of the labor used was black. Leased convicts received no compensation for their work, although the state certainly did; from one form of slavery into another, with the state as master rather than the plantation owner. Despite being outlawed in the early 20th century, the practice left a profound legacy in the United States, particularly in the South.

Prison labor in the United States is legal and actively used by a number of states, at least 37 of which have created lucrative private contracts for prison labor. Prison laborers receive pennies on the dollar for their work and do not benefit from worker safety protections. Comparisons of modern-day prison labor to slavery, especially given the racial disparities in the prison system, are often dismissed. After all, the 13th Amendment does legalize slavery “as punishment for a crime.” Under this system, turning to probationers to meet a labor shortage is not so much of a stretch; it's perhaps more astounding that the governor hasn't proposed reviving convict leasing under another name, which will probably be next on the agenda before the state gives in and promotes a “guest worker” program where immigrants can labor until no longer needed before being discarded.

Georgia's prison system is rife with inequalities and serious health and safety issues. A recent survey of the prison population shows inmate numbers on the rise, with escalating costs for prisoner maintenance, thanks to aggressive laws passed in the 1990s to take a “tough stance” on crime. These laws result, as in other states, in a prison population bulging with nonviolent offenders trapped in the system under mandatory sentencing laws. If Georgia doesn't watch out, it will turn into another California, and face a mandate to reduce the number of inmates to address overcrowding.

Georgia's prison population is heavily slanted black, with a large percentage of poor whites as well; Georgia prisons have a roughly three to one ratio of black to white inmates. Last year, the state's prison system made major headlines with a multi-facility prison strike over poor living conditions. Release from prison doesn't mean an escape from inequality in South Georgia, where the agricultural industry is concentrated, with a population of 8,000 parolees and a staggering 25 percent unemployment rate among them, according to numbers from the Georgia Department of Corrections. The suggestion to use probationers as laborers is not occurring in a vaccum.

Probationer labor might not even work out, according to Jim Bogart, representing the Grower Shipper Association. Bogart points out that farm labor is grueling, demanding work and that people who are not in peak physical condition may not be able to withstand the demands of hours in the fields. The terms of probation in Georgia require parolees to seek “suitable employment,” but as the high unemployment rate illustrates, this is easier said than done. The same job discrimination that makes it difficult for probationers and ex-convicts to get employed in other states is present in Georgia, as evidenced by the high unemployment rate among probationers and resistance from the the agricultural community in response to the suggestion to use them as a labor force.

The Department of Corrections presents the suggestion to use probationers as a labor force as a novel and elegant solution to the farmworker shortage in Georgia. It claims that “[t]he decision to take advantage of this employment opportunity is the probationers [sic],” but how true is this when seeking employment is a mandatory component of parole? With probation officers leaning on parolees and farm jobs going begging, the pressure to participate in the field labor program is going to mount, and may present a probationer with the stark choice of fields or prison. Given the “option” of returning to the bowels of the fifth largest correctional system in the United States, one known for brutal living conditions and disparities, or participating in unfamiliar, potentially dangerous work, most probationers are going to be picking up a shovel.

s.e. smith is a frequent stirrer-of-pots, agitator, and writer. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.