Immigration Reform Could Impact U.S. Agriculture Industry

By Catherine Skrzypinski Jul 21, 2011

Shortly after Georgia’s state government approved legislation in May 2011 requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify identification system to confirm the eligibility of new employees, undocumented residents began leaving the state in droves rather than face arrest and fines.

As a result, farmers throughout Georgia began seeing their mostly immigrant workforce dry up, and millions of dollars worth of crops were left rotting in fields.

A survey of 230 Georgia farmers released by the Georgia Department of Agriculture in June 2011 indicated that farmers needed to fill more than 11,000 laborer positions—despite an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent in the state.

Although a federal judge blocked certain provisions of Georgia's immigration law, immigration experts say what happened in Georgia is a foreshadowing of what could happen to the entire U.S. agriculture industry should E-Verify be mandated nationwide.

“If the United States passed a Georgia-style immigration law in the absence of meaningful immigration law reform at the national level, it would cripple the agricultural industry across the country,” Teri Simmons, director of the International/Immigration Practice Group at Arnall Golden Gregory, a law firm based in Atlanta, told SHRM Online via e-mail.

“There are not a sufficient number of U.S. citizens or permanent residents to work in agriculture in the United States,” Simmons added.

Since the early 2000s, Latino farmhands have taken a majority of labor-intensive jobs in the southeastern United States. Legal experts estimate that most of the laborers do not have the proper documentation to harvest crops.

In an effort to crack down on illegal workers, lawmakers in Georgia, Alabama, Utah, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina passedimmigration enforcement laws in 2011. Georgia’s sweeping immigration law, which would have taken effect on July 2, 2011, authorized state and local officials to verify the immigration status of employees. Meanwhile, Alabama passed a similar immigration law, in June 2011, which mandates that employers use E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires.

Arizona set the precedent for this new wave of immigration laws in 2010 with a controversial measure that would permit law enforcement to identify, prosecute and deport undocumented immigrants.

“If other states [continue to] follow suit with Arizona, the U.S. could be faced with different variations of the immigration laws that are being proposed, depending on which sections of the law are adopted by each particular state,” explained Gretel Ness, an immigration attorney with Parker Butte and Lane in Portland, Ore.

“How are employers—especially multistate employers—supposed to comply with 50 different versions of state-imposed immigration requirements?” Ness questioned.

Change at the Top

These new state laws precede legislation in Washington, which has the potential to change how American employers verify the eligibility of job candidates and new hires. The Legal Workforce Act of 2011 (H.R. 2164), introduced in the House of Representatives on June 14, 2011, would require all employers in the country to use E-Verify and would eliminate the I-9 immigration status form.

Tyler Moran, policy director of the National Immigration Law Center, a civil rights organization that specializes in immigration law and the employment and public benefits rights of immigrants, opposes the Legal Workforce Act. Moran provided testimony at a hearing on Capitol Hill in June 2011.

“Making use of E-Verify or any electronic employment eligibility verification system mandatory, outside of broader reform of our immigration system, will undermine American jobs and ultimately impose new burdens on [the U.S.] economy, workers and businesses,” Moran told lawmakers during the hearing.

About 4 percent of U.S. employers—or more than 250,000—are registered to use E-Verify, which is scheduled to expire in September 2012 unless extended by Congress. “We have been trying an ‘immigration enforcement–only approach’ for at least two decades now, and it has not worked. We need enforcement of labor, employment and civil rights laws, not the current churning of the workforce, where undocumented workers are often preferred over documented workers because they are easier to hire and fire. That only results in further downward pressure on wages and working conditions of all U.S. workers,” she said.

Legalize Illegal Immigrants

Karen Weinstock, managing attorney at the Atlanta office of immigration law firm Siskind Susser, told SHRM Online that the system is broken.

“Once a person is in [the U.S.] illegally, they cannot legalize their status,” Weinstock said. “The mandate should come in the form of comprehensive immigration reform from Congress that will allow legalization of the millions of people that are already here in America and contributing. This cannot be done through E-Verify or another form of compliance.”

Aimee Todd, an immigration attorney at Troutman Sanders LLP in Atlanta, stated that in order for immigration enforcement to be effective, a legalization program through immigration reform is necessary.

“The Obama administration has greatly increased levels of enforcement both against employers and against individuals, but this has proven to be ineffective on its own. This is because a single-handed approach will never address the whole problem,” Todd said.

“A legal system should be created so the agricultural industry, as well as other industries, can follow a workable solution that allows for needed workers in the United States and provides legal protections at the same time.”

Some lawmakers have long held that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans, yet some experts disagree.

“Americans are not demanding these types of jobs,” said Gabriel Thompson, author of Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do (Nation Books, 2010). “The turnover is incredibly high,” he said. “People leave jobs [in agriculture] after only a couple of weeks.”

In his book, Thompson chronicled a year of his life picking lettuce in Arizona, processing chickens in Alabama and delivering goods by bicycle for a New York City restaurant.

“As a laborer, I felt mentally, physically and psychologically tired. I had no energy to do anything else,” Thompson said. He said that when he worked in a poultry plant in Alabama, there were new-hire orientations four days a week. Although there were few economic opportunities in the region, most people were not willing to work such jobs.

Greg Siskind, founder of the immigration law firm Siskind Susser in Memphis, Tenn., and the author of The Employer’s Immigration Compliance Desk Reference (Society for Human Resource Management, 2009)echoed Thompson’s views.

“Not only are the conditions very difficult; many positions require people to relocate to do back-breaking work for low wages,” Siskind added. “These are unrealistic expectations. Let’s face it—these are jobs most Americans don’t want.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance journalist in Alexandria, Va.


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