In mid-April, Republican freshman Rep. Matt Ramsey took the floor of the Georgia House to sell his colleagues on House Bill 87, also known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011.
“If we want to effectively address illegal immigration, we can't wait for our federal government to act,” Ramsey said as he introduced it. “We've got to do it ourselves.”
HB 87 was one of more than 30 hard-line immigration laws proposed around the nation this year. Most died before making it to a governor's desk. But the laws have taken hold in Southern states, far from the U.S.-Mexico border, putting them on the front line of the country's heated immigration battle.
Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina have all passed measures similar to the legislation, as have Utah and Indiana. Many have called these bills “copycats” of Arizona's SB 1070, passed last year. The law made failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gave police power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Ramsey denies claims that his bill is a copycat, citing in particular HB 87's provision that requires police suspect an individual of a crime before inquiring into citizenship status. Senate Bill 1070, on the other hand, allows law enforcement to stop individuals solely on suspicion of being in the country illegally. Civil rights and immigration organizations successfully filed a federal lawsuit to block the part of the law that granted law enforcement the ability inquire into immigration status, a suit expected to go to the Supreme Court. In June, a Federal Judge enjoined a similar provision of the Georgia law.
While proponents of these laws say they are pushing them in the face of repeated failures by the federal government to enforce immigration laws, the Obama administration is in fact detaining and deporting more people than every before — nearly 400,000 last year. In addition, investigations by NPR and In These Times last year revealed connections between the Arizona's SB 1070 and the private prison industry. Investigations focused on the American Legislative Exchange Council, a non-profit group composed of private industry heads and legislators, that meet to discuss and draft legislation. (Find more on The Nation's recent project, ALEC Exposed).
HB 87 may well benefit the private prison industry, which has a strong presence in Georgia, where GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, the two largest private prison companies in the United States, run several immigration detention centers and two prisons that hold non-citizens convicted of federal crimes. But while one private industry may profit, there are signs the laws may be hurting others in the Southern states. In Georgia, the law has been particularly hard on agriculture, the economic base of the depressed southern part of the state. This despite Ramsey's assurances that “there will be absolutely no cost on businesses that are following the law.”
Weeks before HB 87 went into effect, farmers across the Peach state were already reporting massive labor shortages. A survey conducted by the state in June found Georgia was short more than 11,000 farm workers this year. Most trace it directly to HB 87, which includes a provision that allows police officers to question and detain anyone who cannot prove citizenship. Interviews with farmers and migrant workers showed that the law has frightened mostly-Hispanic workers who migrate to Georgia from Florida, and other Southern states, into bypassing the state altogether. Farmers in Alabama, where a similar law is set to take effect on September 1, are also reporting shortages.
Walking one late afternoon through blackberry fields in Wray, a small agricultural community in Irwin County, Georgia, the real effects of the law became clear. Fat, overripe blackberries hung heavy from the bushes in Paulk Vineyards, a family-run farm that boasts one of the largest muscadine grape crops in the world. By 5 p.m., a few hundred workers had been working since sunrise in temperatures over 100 degrees, struggling to pick the berries as fast as they could. But there weren't enough hands.
“Those that say, 'Well you know, lets put the Americans to work, the unemployed,' they don't jump at the chance to come out here and try the 102 degree work in the fields,” said owner Gary Paulk. “It's a skilled labor force.”
Paulk estimated that he would lose about $250,000 this year because he cannot find enough workers. Statewide estimates put total losses around $1 billion this year.
To address the labor crisis, Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a plan to put unemployed people who are on probation in the fields of South Georgia. (Most probationers are nonviolent offenders.) Days into the plan, news reports described probationers walking off the fields after a few hours, confirming farmers' claims that a few thousand probationers untrained in farm work couldn't compensate for the unexpected shortage of skilled migrant laborers no longer willing to risk a trip to Georgia.
“To just pass a law with no research about how its going to affect anybody, to me its just a real shortsightedness on our legislator's part,” Paulk said. “It's having a lot larger impact not only on me, but also on the state's economy, than anybody ever predicted.”