Immigration law hurts Georgia harvest

BY CHRIS STEINKE | JULY 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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“You know that Arizona-style immigration bill we passed in May?” Georgia’s investigation results (basically) said. “Uh, yeah, about that.”

This past week, the state of Georgia released results from a report (under)stating that Georgia farmers would need more than 11,000 additional workers to harvest their crops.

Flash back to a month ago: Gov. Nathan Deal welcomed cameras and reporters into his office as he signed a bill aiming to crack down on illegal immigrants, who were ostensibly taking jobs away from state residents.

The law wasn’t about wages or safety, benefits or workers’ rights in an industry known for its poor compensation and conditions; this was about strengthening Georgia’s infrastructure by ridding it of illegals. It seems that the illegals gone, everything would be hunky-dorey, right? Right?

Uh, yeah, about that. Now, it might have to be about wages, safety, benefits, and workers’ rights after all.

It seems Georgia unknowingly imposed on itself a workers’ strike at one of the most inopportune times possible, with crops rotting in the field during record high unemployment.

(I guess this is what happens when an electorate contradicts itself, yearning for free trade while doing everything in its power to stifle the labor movement. Free trade is what you wanted? Well, I hope you enjoy South Carolina’s peaches and India’s peanuts.)

So now it seems that Georgia has three ways out of this mess. The cleanest way out is unfortunately the least likely, and that is to repeal the law entirely.

“Uh, yeah, about that,” the governor would say. “That was actually a really stupid idea. We forgot to think that one through, even like a little bit. In hindsight, we probably should have done at least a five-minute cost/benefit analysis before we passed the bill. But it’s not our fault. It wasn’t us who disguised racism as an acceptable political platform. Oh, it was? Well, shit.”

The most likely “solution” is probably a federal bailout, and it’s undoubtedly what Georgians are hoping for. Hurray for small government!

I hope I’m not the only one that sees the silver lining, also known as, the third way out of this mess: The start of an American agricultural revolution with higher wages and better working conditions for seasonal farm hands, enticing more American citizens into the business (and helping out the immigrants, too).

These changes wouldn’t lead to as dramatic of an increase in crop prices as many may think; labor only accounts for 17 percent of total variable farm costs.

Most farms’ overhead is vastly made of up fixed costs, i.e. taxes, land, and equipment. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that costs are 50 percent fixed, 50 percent variable, so doubling workers’ wages would result in a 8.5 percent increase in price, or (gasp) a 27-cent peach versus a 25-cent peach. And this is extra, extra, super conservative, because labor would account for even less of a percentage of the market price. It goes without saying this would easily offset the energy costs of transporting “cheaper” goods from out-of-state.

And Iowa can facilitate this process.

In order for a wage increase of this magnitude to gain any kind of momentum, Georgia cannot be the lone participant. Iowa seems like the logical ally for this kind of movement, with fewer labor-intensive crops (corn, wheat, beans) and thus less to lose within the margins of the income statements.

Ideally, there would be a path to citizenship for migrant workers, the undocumented backbone of our agriculture. But given the opposition from the senior senator from our own state to something as sensible as the DREAM Act, reform such as this appears unlikely, to say the least.

But who am I to incorporate logic and foresight in an argument based on ignorance? What do I know? Maybe it would be more beneficial and less costly to deport every single illegal immigrant rather than work together to remedy both of our problems.

Uh, yeah. About that.

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