ATLANTA (AP) — After passing a law to crack down on illegal immigration, Georgia may eliminate a program meant to help farmers navigate the complicated process of getting visas for foreign laborers.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal's budget plan calls for cutting $150,000 for two liaison positions at the Department of Agriculture. Those employees have served as go-betweens, assisting farmers as they attempted to seek visas for foreign workers through state and federal labor officials.
The pilot program was among the few concessions that Georgia's farmers won after the Republican-controlled state government passed a stringent 2011 law targeting illegal immigrants, including some foreigners used by farmers to harvest labor-intensive crops such as fruits and vegetables.
The law authorizes police to check the immigration status of suspects who lack proper identification and to detain illegal immigrants. Using false information or documentation when applying for a job became a felony offense. By mid-July, every employer — including farmers — with more than 10 employees must use a federal database called E-Verify to make sure new hires are eligible to work in the United States.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black's office proposed the cuts as it trimmed $1 million from its budget, saying the results did not meet desired outcomes. Legislators, who must pass the budget, started their review of agency spending plans this week.
"The solution to this is at the federal level and having a competent easy-to-use guest worker program so people can come and go," Black said. "... When we were prioritizing resources, we simply had to say we're moving on."
Black said his two workers, including one who has already left for a new job, educated farmers about the federal guest worker program and made inquiries when applications from growers stalled in the federal system. But the state government does not run the federal guest worker program.
Farmers said foreign workers scared of the law were leaving Georgia, creating a labor shortage in the fields. Estimating the extent of labor shortages has been difficult. Black's office said 20 percent of growers who responded to a survey reported hiring fewer workers in 2011 than the average during the previous five years. The growers cited multiple factors including a poor economy, difficulties with worker retention and a lack of available workers.
The Georgia Farm Bureau, the state's largest lobbying group for growers, does not intend to fight the cuts.
Growers who need many temporary laborers often have their own employees who manage visa issues or they hire contractors to do it, said Jon Huffmaster, legislative director for the Georgia Farm Bureau. He said he was uncertain how many farmers used the state-run assistance to navigate the federal visa program.
"It's an enormous job to work through that ... program and the state is quite limited in what they can do," he said.
"We still have a problem with getting labor and that continues to be a problem," he said. "And I don't know how we can have a state solution to this. We need a federal solution."
Farmers around the country have long claimed the federal guest worker program is difficult to use and doesn't provide workers when they need them. Republican leaders in Georgia have offered farmers few alternatives. Aside from Black's liaison program, the corrections system has encouraged probationers to apply for farming jobs, a limited effort with mixed results.
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