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.