Conflict & Justice

Georgia Businesses Suffering from State Immigration Law

By Shomial Ahmad of station WABE in Atlanta

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Parts of a tough new immigration law went into effect Friday in Georgia. It's the latest instance of a US state seeking to make it harder for illegal immigrants to live and work within its borders.

Earlier this week, a federal judge blocked some of the law's provisions. But other parts of the legislation are now being enforced, such as the one that makes it a felony to use false information when applying for a job.

The new law is already impacting Georgia industries that rely on undocumented workers.

It's the tail end of blackberry season in South Georgia. Isabel Rojas is out in the heat, with an American flag scarf covering her head. She's bending and plucking through the blackberry vines. She's trying to get plump, deep purple berries. She said there aren't as many workers as there usually are.

Rojas said there used to be 75 workers here, but now there are only 40 and that some migrant workers who came from Florida left after just one day. They were scared, she said, of the new Georgia law.

But Rojas, who herself is undocumented, plans on staying in the state even with the new law.

"I got all my babies here, they grow up, they marry," Rojas said. "I've got five grandbabies. Here is my life."

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed House Bill 87 into law right when the blackberries were ready to be harvested. At the bill's signing in mid-May, Deal said his aim was to deal with an issue being ignored by the federal government, and to help his state during tough economic times.

"With an illegal population that is estimated to be almost 500,000, the collective financial cost to our educational, health care, and correctional infrastructure is in the billions," Deal said.

But critics of the bill point out that undocumented workers help Georgia businesses bring in billions of dollars, and the new law is already hurting them. Take the state's $69 billion agriculture industry. Bryan Tolar, president of Georgia Agribusiness Council, is opposed to the bill, and said it has hurt his industry in the past six weeks.

"So what we've seen is about a 30 percent loss in that labor force, so we're looking at a 200 to $250 million loss potentially," Tolar said.

Gary Paulk give me a tour of his blackberry farm where piles of berries rot on the ground. Paulk is one of the owners of the family-run farm where Rojas picks blackberries. He said he's lost about $200,000 this blackberry season mainly because of Georgia's new law.

But what bothers Paulk more than his financial loss, is how the law is punitive.

"Having a fake ID, a first-time offense can be up to 10 years, and $100,000 fine," Paulk said. "I mean that's, that's like a felony. A felony to use a fake id to get a job to support your family."

And what drove many workers to not come to Paulk's fields this blackberry season is a fear that police would have increased power in immigration matters.

Javier Guerrero, a contractor who recruits workers for the farm, had a really hard time finding any migrant workers this year. Guerrero even went to Florida to try and recruit.

"I went to three or four places over there, and I don't bring not even one," he said. "A few call me when they find out about how the law was going to be here, they scared, they don't come."

Paulk is glad that a federal judge temporarily blocked two key provisions of the Georgia law this week, and he hopes the hold will keep workers on his fields. But it may be too little too later for him.

"Well, I think the damage, in my opinion, has already been done, because there's so much hearsay, you know," he said.

The blackberry harvesting season is almost over. Now it's on to muscadine grapes. Paulk's curious to see how many workers he'll get to pick them later this summer. The grapes are his main crop.

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