Georgia’s Immigration Debacle Continues: Report on Agricultural Workers

The Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture, Gary Black, as part of the state’s onerous immigration law, has issued the “Report on Agriculture Labor.” The report is very disappointing because the agricultural laborers – the focus of the report – play no role in the report. Despite lengthy surveys of growers and other agricultural business operators, the Report lacks any input from the seasonal farmworkers who are supposed to be the main subject. The report does explicitly acknowledge that federal law does not permit state governments to create a foreign guest worker program, and that solutions to labor issues facing Georgia agriculture rest in the hands of the federal government. But the report ignores the “elephant in the room” – which is what to do about the fact that the majority of seasonal farmworkers in the United States are undocumented workers and we need their labor.

Much of the report is a long list of complaints that some growers have about the H-2A agricultural guestworker program (although 90% of the Georgia growers have not used it). One mind-boggling example is the allegation, aimed at legal aid programs, that “attractive women come on to my property, without my permission to try and talk my workers into suing me.” (p. 58). The report gives these growers’ complaints more than ample space, but there are no voices of farmworkers, farmworker organizations or even the U.S. Department of Labor, which has had primary responsibility for administering the H-2A program and its predecessor since it began over 60 years ago.

The recent report of Farmworker Justice, “No Way to Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers,” is just one example of sources that could have been used to provide a balanced approach. Despite the growers’ complaints, to his credit, the Commissioner did not recommend many of the harsh changes in the H-2A guestworker program that some grower groups have advocated. His call for more education, outreach, research (including research into worker concerns) and federal action will undoubtedly anger many agribusiness representatives.

Nonetheless, the report missed an opportunity to help build a coalition to support legalization of undocumented farmworkers and demonstrated once again that many policymakers in this country do not view farmworkers as part of agriculture.