Georgia’s New Immigration Law Leading To Crops Rotting In Farmers’ Fields
During the last legislative session, Georgia adopted a harsh new immigration law modeled on the law passed last year by Arizona. Now, it seems they’re getting a little lesson in the law of unintended consequences:
After enacting House Bill 87, a law designed to drive illegal immigrants out of Georgia, state officials appear shocked to discover that HB 87 is, well, driving a lot of illegal immigrants out of Georgia.
It might be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
Thanks to the resulting labor shortage, Georgia farmers have been forced to leave millions of dollars’ worth of blueberries, onions, melons and other crops unharvested and rotting in the fields. It has also put state officials into something of a panic at the damage they’ve done to Georgia’s largest industry.
Barely a month ago, you might recall, Gov. Nathan Deal welcomed the TV cameras into his office as he proudly signed HB 87 into law. Two weeks later, with farmers howling, a scrambling Deal ordered a hasty investigation into the impact of the law he had just signed, as if all this had come as quite a surprise to him.
The results of that investigation have now been released. According to survey of 230 Georgia farmers conducted by Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, farmers expect to need more than 11,000 workers at some point over the rest of the season, a number that probably underestimates the real need, since not every farmer in the state responded to the survey.
In response, Deal proposes that farmers try to hire the 2,000 unemployed criminal probationers estimated to live in southwest Georgia. Somehow, I suspect that would not be a partnership made in heaven for either party.
Adam Ozimek, who’s guest blogging for Megan McArdle this week, explains the rather elementary economics behind what’s happening:
It goes like this. If you’re not going to let illegal immigrants do the jobs they are currently being hired to do, then farmers will have to raise wages to replace them. Since farmers are taking a risk in hiring immigrant workers, you can bet they were getting a significant deal on wage costs relative to “market wages”. I put market wages here in quotations, because it’s quite possible that the wages required to get workers to do the job are so high that it’s no longer profitable for farmers to plant the crops in the first place.
All of this is to say if you’re going to stop illegal immigrants from doing a job you should be prepared for the job, and perhaps even the business itself, to go away. You may think this is worth it, but you should at least be acknowledging the risks and weigh them against what, if anything, you think is being gained.
Instead, it appears rather obvious that Georgia legislators didn’t even bother to consult with farmers about what the consequences of cracking down on the very community that picks their crops might possible be, or develop a plan to deal with a sudden loss of an important source of labor. Governor Deal’s idea to use probationers to pick the crops is just inherently silly because there’s no incentive for those probationers to do their job as efficiently as the migrant workers did, and because there’s little possibility that the farmers will trust them on their property. Instead, the Georgia legislature was caught up in the same anti-immigrant zeal that pushed a similar law through in Arizona last year.
The anti-immigration crowd likes to say that illegal immigrants are taking jobs that Americans would otherwise do. The fact that Georgia farmers aren’t able to replace their migrant workers would seem to be evidence that this is clearly not the case. After all, would any American do a job like this:
According to the survey, more than 6,300 of the unclaimed jobs pay an hourly wage of just $7.25 to $8.99, or an average of roughly $8 an hour. Over a 40-hour work week in the South Georgia sun, that’s $320 a week, before taxes, although most workers probably put in considerably longer hours. Another 3,200 jobs pay $9 to $11 an hour. And while our agriculture commissioner has been quoted as saying Georgia farms provide “$12, $13, $14, $16, $18-an-hour jobs,” the survey reported just 169 openings out of more than 11,000 that pay $16 or more.
In addition, few of the jobs include benefits — only 7.7 percent offer health insurance, and barely a third are even covered by workers compensation. And the truth is that even if all 2,000 probationers in the region agreed to work at those rates and stuck it out — a highly unlikely event, to put it mildly — it wouldn’t fix the problem.
It’s hard to envision a way out of this. Georgia farmers could try to solve the manpower shortage by offering higher wages, but that would create an entirely different set of problems. If they raise wages by a third to a half, which is probably what it would take, they would drive up their operating costs and put themselves at a severe price disadvantage against competitors in states without such tough immigration laws. That’s one of the major disadvantages of trying to implement immigration reform state by state, rather than all at once.
The pain this is causing is real. People are going to lose their crops, and in some cases their farms. The small-town businesses that supply those farms with goods and services are going to suffer as well. For economically embattled rural Georgia, this could be a major blow.
And all because Republicans in Atlanta wanted to cause harm to those darn immigrants. In the process, they’ve dealt a serious blow to one of the biggest industries in their state.
There’s a court challenge to the law pending right now and it’s possible that the Court will issue a stay on enforcement of the law. If that happens, then maybe some of the migrant workers will come back with the fear of arrest lifted. Even if they do, though, it may be too late for some farmers. Food will rot in fields, prices will go up in the grocery store, and all because of a stupid law that’s probably unconstitutional anyway. How utterly insane.