When the agribusiness sector in Georgia opposes immigration reform, is it protesting over-regulation? Or, is it squirming at the fact that legal employees would mean minimum wages and minimum benefits, which would cut into profit margins? Whatever the case, the Georgia Senate has been working on a bill that would ensure Georgia businesses only hire legal workers, and the big farming community’s hackles are definitely up:
The legislation, which passed 34-21 and now goes to the House, would require businesses with five or more employees to enroll in E-Verify, a federal Web-based system that screens for illegal workers.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly enacted a law five years ago that applies the E-Verify mandate to companies seeking government contracts.
GOP legislative leaders now want to expand that law to the private sector to try to curb an influx of illegal immigrants into Georgia that is driving up the costs of education, health care and law enforcement across the state.
“Illegal immigration hurts Georgia taxpayers,” said Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, the bill’s chief sponsor. “We need to clean up this mess.”
But opponents said that going after illegal immigrants by targeting businesses would be the wrong approach to an issue that should be addressed at the federal level.
First of all, this should not be about xenophobia. The inability of local infrastructure to keep up with swells in illegal immigration is a real problem, as anyone who’s lived in and around–“The Chicken Capital of the World”–Gainesville, Georgia knows (See Hispanic Growth in South for First Time Outpaces That of Blacks and Whites; more specifically, the cutline beneath the photograph: “The Lyman Hall Elementary school in Gainesville, Ga., for example, is 94 percent Hispanic”). Expanding services is a question of both logistics and finances, as the illegal* segment of the population generally pays little back into the system outside of sales tax. Something simply has to be done, especially with budget crises abounding, for local governments to fulfill their basic mission.
For a taste of the Big Food/Big Farm’s objections over cost and competitiveness, listen to Time Running Short To Speak Out against Immigration Reform from Southeast AgNet. To me, saying “don’t blame us for hiring them” just doesn’t hold water. Nor am I sure how forcing Georgia companies to comply with the law is an undue or excessive burden. Even it is, considering revenue shortfalls and a sense of fairness, I think there could hardly be a more “necessary evil” than a coughing up minimum wages and payroll tax.
You’ve got to remember, too, that the entire complex of invisible workers is an injustice to all workers. “Legal” workers aremade less competitive, and they and their counterparts are targets for exploitation, in the processing plant and the field. Grist’s Tom Philpott points out that from 2005 to 2009, “one-quarter of all farmworkers had family incomes below the federal poverty line” (see links in the story to slave-like conditions of winter tomato workers in south Florida).
Politically, it will be interesting to see how the pols stand up to the state’s business lobby. Without a doubt, the spirit of this legislation tests the conservative soul: Can a commitment to fiscal responsibility coexist with a devotion to big business? Whatever the case, some kind of mechanism needs to be established, much like the Bush-sponsored temporary worker visa, where corporations can maintain their bottom lines while paying their tax share–and where all employees can avail themselves of those minimum rights that guarantee the pursuit of happiness.
*For the record, I wish there was a term with a less pejorative connotation than “illegal.” Outside of the difficulties of accommodating them into the social system, they are, by and large, a welcome addition, as their values are equally focused on family and community. That is to say, the majority of new legal and illegal immigrants to the United States come for most of the same reasons that everyone else did: better pay, better education, better healthcare, more individual freedom, a better quality of life.