RAY HENRY, Associated Press
ATLANTA — Congress must make a national guest worker program that's easier for farmers to use now that states including Georgia have passed laws targeting illegal immigrants that threaten possible labor shortages in the fields, Georgia's agriculture commissioner said Tuesday.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black's main recommendation came in a report that lawmakers required his office to produce last year when they joined with Arizona, Alabama and other states in passing harsh laws targeting illegal immigrants. Georgia's main farm lobbying groups opposed the move, arguing that immigration should be left to the federal government and that a crackdown would scare away migrant workers needed to harvest crops in the state's largest economic sector.
Its main recommendation echoes longtime complaints from farmers who have called the federal guest worker program unwieldy and expensive, a criticism that became more urgent once state governments launched crackdowns on illegal immigrants. If lawmakers hoped that Black's report would contain easy fixes to smooth over concerns from the agriculture industry, they will be largely disappointed.
"The only answer lies in the prospects of a 21st century guest worker program at the federal level that meets the needs of all types of agricultural enterprises," Black said at a news conference.
Georgia lawmakers designed the state's law to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get jobs. Yet some farmers have warned they are now struggling to find the workers necessary to harvest crops such as onions or cucumbers that are too delicate to be machine-picked.
A number of provisions in the law are intended to make it difficult for illegal immigrants to enter the workforce. One section that took effect this month requires employers with 500 or more workers to use a federal database called E-Verify to make sure new hires are legally eligible to work. Employers with more than 10 employees will be required to use E-Verify by July 2013. Other portions already in effect make it a felony offense to use false information or fake documents when applying for a job.
A federal judge in June temporarily blocked sections of Georgia's new law pending a legal challenge by immigrant rights and civil liberties groups. Those contested provisions would authorize police to check the immigration status of suspects who don't have proper identification and to detain illegal immigrants. Another section put on hold would have penalized people who knowingly transported or harbored illegal immigrations while committing another crime.
Black dismissed one idea raised by lawmakers in Georgia and other states: creating a state-run system that would replace the federal H2A program that grants temporary visas to foreign laborers willing to work on American farms. Black said Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens advised him that such a state-run program would be illegal.
Black praised members of Georgia's Congressional delegation for backing bills that he said would improve the guest worker program. He said the federal program should be run by U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the U.S. Department of Labor. He also said that instead of requiring farmers to provide guest workers with housing, growers should be allowed to give workers a voucher to obtain their housing elsewhere.
In his recommendations, Black suggested that state agriculture officials could educate Georgia farmers on how to use the federal guest worker program. Many farmers told Black's office that the federal program either would not work for their farms or they heard only bad things about it — or nothing at all.
Determining the economic impact of the new law on the agriculture sector remains extremely difficult. Black's report offers some glimpses, though few firm answers.
Just over 20 percent of farmers who responded to a state survey said they hired fewer workers in 2011 than the average during the previous five years. Those growers cited factors that included a poor economy, loss of revenue, difficulties retaining workers and a lack of available labor. Black's office said it was not clear whether any of the reported labor shortages were a direct result of the state's crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Black said growers blamed labor shortages for causing $10 million in losses, and some farmers pinned the lack of workers on the state's immigration crackdown. Those self-reported figures are imperfect because they came from a relatively small group of farmers.
"It shows that we have a problem," Black said. "We can talk about the magnitude of losses, and they were substantial in Georgia, but really I think we get lost in this million versus that million. We have to look at solutions."