Felons in the Fields: Jim Crow Raises his Ugly Head in Modern-Day Georgia Thanks to New Immigration Law

Anything you say, guv. (Photo: GeorgiaInfo )

Anything you say, guv. (Photo: GeorgiaInfo )

When southern farmers faced a sudden shortage of fieldworkers after their slaves were freed following the Civil War, they made a request to local sheriffs: Go out and arrest some healthy-looking African Americans—vagrancy or any other trumped-up charge would do—and then lease them to us as farm laborers. Those convict-lease programs worked out well for the municipalities who collected fees for supplying the workers and for the landowners but not so well for the men who were forced to toil in the fields. That loathsome practice was banned by 1923.

But it looks like the state of Georgia is about to take a giant step backward by reintroducing felons to its fields. This time around, the cause of the worker shortage is not the freeing of the slaves, but a harsh new immigration law enacted by Georgia politicians. Set to take effect July 1, the new policies are modeled closely after the controversial anti-immigration legislation enacted in Arizona last year. Among other things, they give police the power to check the immigration status of criminal suspects.

Nothing if not mobile, many of the 400,000 or so migrant workers (about 70 percent of whom are undocumented according to United Farmworkers of America) who pick Georgia’s onions, cucumbers, watermelons, and peaches decided to bypass Georgia in their northward pursuit of ripening crops this spring.

The result is a dire labor shortage in the state’s $11-billion agricultural sector. With more than 11,000 positions unfilled, nearly half of Georgia’s farmers report that they have too few workers. They stand to lose $300 million as a result. In some cases the crops have already rotted in the fields and have been plowed under.

Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal, who campaigned last fall on the promise to enact the tough immigration law, described it as a “responsible step” during a signing ceremony in May.

Under pressure from his rural constituents to deal with the acute labor shortage that resulted from this step, he settled on the solution of offering the vacant farm jobs to unemployed probationers, who are required by law to seek work, although they are not required to accept offers for jobs they don’t want to do.

So far, the governor’s 21st-century take on the old convict-lease system doesn’t seem to be working out very well. One crew of felons who went to work for Dick Minor, a farmer and the president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, all quit by mid afternoon on their first day in the fields. On another farm, a group of experienced Hispanic workers filled six trucks full of cucumbers in a day. A similar sized group of probationers working on the same farm only managed to pick one truckload. As an acquaintance of mine who has harvested Georgia melons for several years told me last week, “This isn’t dummie’s work. It takes experience, skill, and knowledge about what your body can handle today if you are going to be in any shape to work again tomorrow.”

Instead of moving Georgia a step back to the Jim Crow era, Gov. Deal could do the intelligent thing and fix an obviously poorly thought-out law to reflect reality: The United States’ food system is built upon the backs of illegal workers. It’s high time legislators recognize this fact and enact laws that allow the people who produce our food to gain legal status.

Dinner depends on it.

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  1. Thanks for writing this, Barry — it’s a hugely important part of the immigration reform “debate,” and you explain it perfectly in just a few paragraphs.

    When people take a hard-line against immigration and against providing viable paths to citizenship, they often seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that, as you say, our food system (and many other industries) is “built upon the backs of illegal workers.”

    Here in California, I shudder to think what would happen to the entire nation’s food supply and economy if California were to enact laws similar to Georgia’s and Arizona’s.

  2. Phyllis says:

    Thanks, Barry! I would say that, while the emphasis may no longer be on field labor, prison industries are still going very strong. Prison remains the place where “involuntary servitude” remains legal (and constitutional; read the 13th amendment), and there are some who theorize that the Southern response to emancipation formed the basis for the modern penal system, which still incarcerates African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately.

    These new immigration laws stink all over, and here in Georgia, where I live, farmers are already becoming vocal about possible labor shortages, thus Deal’s ass-backwards solution. Every time I hear someone speak out in support of these laws, I ask them if they are going to go out and pick lettuce, then. Their dumbfounded expressions quickly tell me how disconnected some people have become about the source of their food,

  3. Lara says:

    Writing in defense of social justice for one group does not give you license to be bigoted towards another. I’m more than a little offended by this piece. I searched for and found your blog with great excitement today after hearing you on the radio tomatoes, agra-business, etc. Having this be the first article I’ve read on your blog, let me say that I’m very disappointed.

    First, your reference to Jim Crow laws in the title and throughout the article insinuates that all the ex-offenders being offered agricultural jobs are African-American. While it is true that African-Americans are over represented in the criminal justice system, I don’t think all the ex-offenders and probationers in Georgia are Black. Writing about this issue as if they are does feed on some stereotypes and fear fantasies, but it is not true.

    Second, a key difference between the situation today and example of post-Civil War Jim Crow you open the article with is that the “felons” in the field today are there by choice and free to leave after a few hours of work as demonstrated later in your very own article. There is nothing inherently wrong with job programs for probationers- in fact, there is a huge need for those programs in this country. To add insult to injury, you later quote someone who describes all these African American felons “dummies”, unable to fill a truck with produce like those hardworking, industrious Mexicans. I am of Mexican descent. We don’t need support like this. Fighting social injustice and racism with social injustice and racism doesn’t add to the greater good. Nowhere in this article do you mention the wage issue, which would make agricultural work a viable option for people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, whether they are ex-offenders or not.

    Maybe I will give your blog a try again when the bad taste of this article has left my mouth. I hope you do better in the future.

  4. Elizabeth Barbour says:

    well…it’s an interesting quandry. we have truckloads of unemployed domestic ex-prisoners SO is it so bad to offer them an opportunity to learn a trade. picking, like any trade, has a learning curve. painful as it might be, probationers might just NEED to step up to the plate and WORK. its great that our agricultural industry gives immigrants a place to work and i like affordable produce just fine. but it is clear that we have a HUGE unemployed population that someone has to float if they cannot float themselves–and working is one of the best floats out there. This might be a case of “buck it up”. I do not advocate wholesale attack on anyone who looks like an immigrant so the back story on this story is cause for concern.

  5. Maryn says:

    As a resident of Georgia: Bravo, Barry.

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