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Priorities of new state legislatures disappointing to many in agriculture

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State legislatures, including those in Georgia and Alabama, have placed immigration reform as a priority issue this year, although farm and tourism groups oppose the new laws.

When many state legislatures were cleansed by the voters this past election, we hoped for better, even though for some of us, our general opinion of politicians is so deeply ingrained by now that it’s not likely to change significantly.

And though they’ve been in office for only a few short months, some of our newly elected office-holders already have proven themselves unworthy, a couple of cases in point being the recent actions of legislators in Alabama and Georgia.

They’ve done what politicians are known to do. They’ve taken overly-simplistic sound bites and slogans from their campaigns and used them as a basis to craft legislation intended to address very complex issues, including immigration.

Sure, it makes for good television to say that we should just round up all of the illegal aliens and ship them back home. But in reality, it’s not so simple, though some would have us believe differently.

Anyone in production agriculture understands the complexity of the immigration issue. As cited in a recent USDA study, the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry is especially labor intensive, facing higher labor rates than many other countries and operating in a very competitive global economy. Currently, labor makes up almost half of the variable production expenses for U.S. fruit and vegetable farms.

For this reason, growers are concerned that immigration reform — stricter enforcement of current immigration or labor laws — could reduce the flow of available workers into the United States. Fewer workers could affect the cost and availability of farm labor for U.S. producers and reduce their ability to compete as suppliers in a global marketplace in which many competing countries have much lower wages.

In addition, stricter enforcement at the state and local levels could mean more paperwork and costs for farmers just to comply and keep themselves on the right side of the law. Last year, employers nationwide spent an estimated $95 million complying with the E-Verify system, a federal program that confirms if newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States.

When immigration “reform” was introduced in the Georgia General Assembly, a group of 270 farmers and other businessmen mostly representing Georgia’s agricultural and landscaping industries warned lawmakers about the impact their immigration enforcement legislation could have on the state’s economy.

In a letter delivered to the lawmakers, the group raised concerns that proposals to give police greater power to question suspected illegal immigrants and to require businesses to verify the immigration status of new employees could harm the state’s tourism and convention industry and make it more costly for them to do business.

Parts of Georgia’s $68.8 billion agricultural industry have issued similar warnings in recent months, but proponents of the new legislation dismissed it as “scare tactics.”

Scores of notable vegetable and fruit farmers, landscapers and agricultural industry representatives signed the letter, including Zippy Duvall, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau; Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council; and Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Georgia Urban Ag Council. These are not people who are on the fringe, and they certainly deserve for their opinions to at least be considered.

“We must also weigh the unintended potential cost of losing major conventions, tourism, and international business opportunities,” the letter said. “We urge you to consider the message we send to the foreign investors and workers that are vital to our success on the global stage.”

The Georgia and Alabama laws are patterned after a measure Arizona enacted last year. About 40 conventions planned for that state have been canceled or relocated since the law was enacted, according to the Arizona Hotel & Lodging Association.

As of this writing, the Georgia immigration reform law had been passed by the General Assembly and was awaiting the governor’s signature. A similar law was breezing through the Alabama Legislature.

Even if you disregard the needs of the states’ agricultural industries, keep in mind that by passing these bills, Alabama and Georgia are placing an added burden on local law enforcement officials, and these are two states that already have seen their budgets cut to the bone, to the point to where they can’t even adequately pay their school teachers.

And, at the end of the day, any or all of these laws might be declared unconstitutional. The Arizona law became tied up in the courts even before it went into effect. Not to deny that a problem exists, but should this really be a top priority of our state lawmakers during such desperate economic times?

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