How Immigrants Keep Us Fed

By admin | July 28, 2011

Photo: Michael Coghlan

Illegal immigrants and immigration laws have always been hot topics within the national arena, producing strong views and sometimes surprisingly stringent laws. Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration laws, passed last year, have inspired another crop of state laws aimed to crack down on illegal immigration, this time in Georgia.

Barry Estabrook reports in his article, “Georgia Learns a Hard Truth: Illegal Immigrants Keep us Fed,” for The Atlantic, that this new law, enacted on July 1st, as driven more than 400,000 migrant workers further north this past spring, as most are undocumented. The result is a huge agricultural labor shortage in Georgia, with 11,000 jobs unfilled and $300 million in produce lost. Many of the crops have started to rot in the fields because of the lack of hands available to harvest them.

To combat this issue, Georgia’s government has sought to re-institute a Civil War era law, offering unfilled farm jobs to unemployed criminals and probationers who are required to land a job by law. It would seem that the government has devised a clever kill two birds with one stone system, but the new program does not seem to be working out well.

While a group of skilled migrant workers picked six-truckloads worth of cucumbers, the same sized group of felons only managed to pick one truckload. Similarly, one crew of probationers quit by the afternoon of their first day. As Estabrook points out, farming and harvesting our food is not easy work, but rather it takes patience, perseverance and a lot of physical exertion – only skilled experience will teach you how to pace yourself in order to be in service the next day.

Instead of devising complex and unworkable substitution systems for the labor shortage, Estabrook suggests that Georgia, and other similar states, come to terms with the realities of illegal immigration and farm labor – that the two are intrinsically linked.

Fooling ourselves to believe otherwise will only damage our national food system and cause our farmers to lose produce and money. Instead, as Estabrook believes, we should pass laws that allow our food providers to gain legal status, making their lives more stable and safe while making sure we all get the food we need.

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