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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.