TIFTON, GA (WSFA) - Farmers in Alabama have been among the most vocal opponents to the state's new immigration law. They say the law has driven many of the workers to go elsewhere, forcing many to lower the amount of crops they grow or go out of business altogether.
Alabama isn't the only state in south with a tough law. Georgia's law went into affect just months before ours, and produce farmers there say Georgia's law has made it harder for them to keep growing produce.
"A lot of the workers are bypassing Georgia now, they're scared to come in," said Phillip Grimes, who runs Docia Farms, just outside Tifton.
Grimes grows cantaloupes and melons on Docia Farms, just outside Tifton. For 20 years, the decision about what to plant has been easy. Grimes said Georgia's new immigration law makes that decision harder. Grimes employs domestic workers when it's time to process his crops, but he says migrant workers do the best job at picking the crops.
"It's hot days, humid days. It takes people who are conditioned, people who have done this before."
Two laws, two states
Georgia's immigration law' requires employers to use the E-verify program to confirm the immigration status of workers. It also contained provisions allowing local police to determine the immigration status of certain suspects. That part of the law is on hold because of court challenges.
Alabama's law also includes the E-Verify provisions - but they take affect for all employers in April. In Georgia, the requirement will be phased in over the next year. Alabama's law allows police to detain people they suspect are in the country illegally. Despite the differences in the laws, farmers say the effects are clear.
"It's a lot harder to get help, and it's really hard to get quality help," said Allan Parrish, who runs Sweet Dixie Melon Company.
A large amount of the produce from Parrish's fields ends up in Alabama. He believes if the law isn't changed, the impact will not only be felt on the farm, but also in grocery stores across the region.
"Do I think the cantaloupes and the watermelons are going to disappear from the grocery story," Parrish said. "No, I think they're going to be there. But they're going to be from Mexico, not Georgia or Alabama or Florida.'
Agriculture means big business
Agriculture is big business in South Georgia. The latest statistics available from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension show the crops grown just in Tift County are worth $145 million. $82 million of that is produce alone, underscoring how valuable produce is to the overall economy.
"Some are planting less crops and that affects a lot of people because now the John Deere Dealership doesn't sell as many tractors, the seed dealers don't sell as many seeds, there's less demand for fertilizer," said Dan Bremer, President of Agworks H2, a company which consults farmers on how comply with federal labor laws. "So when the farmer cuts back on the product they produce because they can't find enough workers to harvest that, It affects everybody."
Is H2A the way?
That means state officials and lawmakers are trying to figure out how to keep the lucrative produce industry from collapsing. They see the federal government's H-2A program as the solution. It allows businesses to hire workers from foreign countries. The workers return home when the work is done.
"The H2A program is the only one that has proven that if you cannot find workers, and you need people to do that job, that there's a system to bring it in," said Bryan Tolar, President of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.
But for some farmers, the program comes with a catch - the farmers have to pay transportation and housing costs for the guest workers. Smaller producers like Phillip Grimes claim H2A just isn't worth the expense.
"7, 8 weeks, April and May, and then we're done," Grimes said. "That's costly to get H2As in and back out and to house them.
Georgia's Department of Agriculture conducted a study of the impact the new law has had on agriculture in the state. It concluded that the H2A program needs to be reformed to help the industry survive. Congressman John Barrow has proposed federal legislation to do just that.
"You've got to make it user friendly for the folks who are in good faith trying to comply so they won't be hauled into court or be check-listed to death," Rep. Barrow said.
Officials hope that will be enough to keep farmers in business, and help keep produce available at a reasonable cost.