LYONS, Ga. — Signs point to an exodus in Vidalia onion country.
Fliers on a Mexican storefront advertise free transportation for workers willing to pick jalapenos and banana peppers in Florida and blueberries in the Carolinas. Buying an outbound bus ticket now requires reservations.
Illegal immigrants and their families who harvest Southeast Georgia’s trademarked sweet onions are considering leaving rather than risk deportation in the wake of a law signed by Gov. Nathan Deal targeting illegal workers.
With the ink barely dry on Georgia’s law, among the toughest in the country, the divisions between suburban voters and those in the countryside are once again laid bare when it comes to immigration, even among people who line up on many other issues.
Farmer R.T. Stanley Jr. of Stanley Farms grows roughly 1,200 acres of onions. Some of his workers arrive with temporary agriculture visas, while others are hired locally. While those workers must present paperwork showing they are here legally, Stanley acknowledged some of it could be fake.
He scoffs at the idea of U.S. citizens doing the work.
“I hire locals usually the first of the season,” he said. “They come out and act like they really want to work. You know how long they stay? Two hours. They say this work’s too hard.”
The new law penalizes people who harbor or transport illegal immigrants in some situations and allows law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who can’t show an approved form of identification. Using false documents to get a job will be a felony once the law goes into effect in July.
Private employers with more than 10 workers must eventually use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires. That doesn’t sit well with farmers or many of their illegal laborers.
Alfredo Perez said he arrived illegally from Mexico three years ago. He travels between Florida, Michigan and Georgia picking crops.
“I think this law is difficult because they don’t want to let us work here. We’re not delinquents,” he said. “We usually come here during onion season, but because of the law, we’re going to have to think about whether or not we’ll come back.”