VIDALIA, Ga. – Two years after Georgia and Alabama passed laws designed to drive away people living in the country illegally, the states’ agricultural areas are still heavily populated with foreign workers, many of whom don’t have legal authorization to be here.
There are still concerns over enforcement and lingering fears among immigrants, but in many ways it appears that people have gone on with life much as it was before the laws were enacted.
Farmers say many of the foreign workers have returned because the laws are not heavily enforced and it once again seems safe to be here.
But the story is more complicated than that: Some are still staying away or have gone underground, according to community activists, and some farmers say they are filling labor shortages not with returning immigrants but with workers hired through a program that grants temporary legal visas.
Meanwhile, employers and workers in both states are watching as Congress wrestles over plans that aim to prevent future illegal immigration and offer a chance at citizenship for millions now living in the country illegally.
Georgia and Alabama were two of five states to pass tough crackdowns on illegal immigration in 2011, a year after Arizona made headlines for a hard-line immigration enforcement law that ended up being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Immediately after the laws were passed, farmers in both states complained foreign workers who lived there had left and the itinerant migrants who generally came through were staying away. American workers weren’t performing the back-breaking work immigrants had done for years, and crops were rotting in the fields because of a lack of laborers, they said.
An informal survey conducted in Georgia showed that farmers of onions, watermelons and other hand-picked crops lacked more than 11,000 workers during their spring and summer harvests of 2011, Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on immigration enforcement and farm labor.
But then as courts began blocking significant elements of the law and some loopholes became apparent, some of the workers who had fled for fear of arrest and deportation returned. Others were drawn back by their longstanding ties to the communities.
Victor Valentin, 25, and his wife, Maria Gonzales, 23, came to the Vidalia onion growing region in south Georgia five years ago and found work quickly. But when the state passed its law cracking down on illegal immigration, they feared they would be caught and deported, and left for neighboring North Carolina.
They didn’t last long. With two young children and no support network there, life was difficult. At the same time, the situation in Georgia seemed to have calmed down.
“We still talked to people here, and we heard there weren’t really any problems, that things hadn’t really changed,” Valentin said, explaining that the family decided to return to the Vidalia area after about nine months. He’s found work harvesting pine straw since his return.
This year, Black and a number of industry leaders in Georgia told The Associated Press they haven’t heard of any labor shortages.
The situation in Alabama is similar.
“No one seems to be having any problems,” said Alabama’s agriculture commissioner, John McMillan, who said he has spoken with farmers who saw migrants return once it became clear the law passed in Alabama was, in practice, mostly toothless. Courts blocked most of the law’s toughest sections, including one that required public schools to check students’ citizenship status, and the massive arrests envisioned by some simply didn’t happen.
Also, according to government statistics, thousands of employers in Alabama have been ignoring a provision in the state’s immigration law that requires them to register with the federal E-Verify system, a program to electronically verify workers’ legal status.
And yet, at least in Georgia, the story is a bit more complicated than it may seem on the surface.
Some migrant families – both legally and illegally in the country – are indeed still avoiding Georgia because they fear discrimination and profiling, said Andrea Hinojosa, a community organizer who has worked with Latino workers in the Vidalia area for more than 20 years.
Other laborers who had worked their way up from the fields into more stable factory or construction work have turned to less stable jobs because businesses are starting to use E-Verify, a key provision of the Georgia law, Hinojosa said.
“I think it has probably put people back into hiding, put them back in the shadows,” Hinojosa said. “It doesn’t mean they’re not working. It could mean that they have just found a job where they can’t be detected.”
Maria Barbosa, a legal permanent resident from Mexico, opened Los Olivos, a store that caters to the Vidalia area’s Latino population, in July 2008. She estimates that her profits at the store, which stocks international phone cards, traditional foods and party supplies, dropped by about 30 percent after Georgia’s law passed. It has rebounded somewhat in the past two years, but it’s still not as strong as it was, she said.
One reason labor shortages in the fields have subsided – in addition to the return of migrant workers who had fled – is that some of the biggest farms in the area have started using or increased their use of a federal guest-worker program to bring in foreign workers legally.
Farmer R.T. Stanley of Stanley Farms, which grows more than 1,000 acres of onions, as well as other crops and vegetables in the area, is one of them.
Stanley said he has started to use more legal guest workers, who are brought into the country on a visa for a defined period of time, because he is not able to find as many experienced migrant workers locally as he used to.
For Barbosa, that can hurt business, because guest workers aren’t nearly as reliable as customers as those who settle in and develop attachments to a community.
“They’ll come in and buy some beans and tortillas and then send $1,000 to Guatemala,” she said of the guest workers.
Many farmers have long complained the federal guest-worker program is too rigid and difficult to use.
“We know we’ve got to deal with the rules, and we do,” said Bob Stafford, director of the Vidalia Onion Business Council. “We do the best we can with them.”
Now farmers and workers both are turning their attention to the debate over national immigration reform and are hoping for provisions that will help them.
“We need a real good guest-worker program,” Stafford said, “something that will work ... for the growers and for the workers and for the community.”
Barbosa, whose husband works as a crew leader recruiting and overseeing field workers for farmers, is also watching Washington.
“People have hope,” she said. “But there’s been a lot of talk about immigration reform before and nothing has happened, so there’s still a lot of doubt.”
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.