With the issue of migrant farm labor hitting a fever-pitch in the Southeast — especially in states like Alabama and Georgia — it might be a good time to take a step back and consider the contributions of immigrants to American agriculture.
In a recent article in The New Yorker magazine about authentic Southern cooking, writer Burkhard Bilger makes the interesting point that the nineteenth century was a great “Age of Experiment” in American agriculture.
“Three-hundred years of immigration had brought over every conceivable crop — rice from China, quinoa from South America, groundnuts from Africa — and farmers found ways to grow them all,” writes Bilger.
In this same article, David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina, says there was a “frenzy” of agricultural research at the time. “They took the carrot culture of Flanders, the turnip culture of Germany, the beet culture of France, and they tweaked them to create this extraordinary myriad of vegetables and grains,” says Shields.
This “extraordinary myriad” is what has given us the rich diversity of crops that we enjoy today. Yet, even as we consider such contributions, in a nation that was built with immigrant labor, some of our states are now viewed as being openly hostile to the entire concept of immigration.
The troublesome trend started in Arizona, where lawmakers were convinced they could do a better job than the federal government of keeping out undocumented immigrants. Georgia and Alabama followed suit, and Florida might consider its own version of “immigration reform” in 2012.
So far, the results of these state laws have been disastrous, and you can read more about it in the pages of this issue of Southeast Farm Press. Such “reforms” have been especially harmful to farmers, more specifically vegetable and fruit producers who rely heavily on immigrant labor to complete their harvest each year.
The reasoning from lawmakers was that these were “job” bills; that illegal immigrants were taking jobs away from U.S. citizens and that stricter enforcement would help to lower the unemployment rate. Either these legislators did not do a thorough-enough job of researching the issue or they simply ignored the facts.
The data is plentiful showing that immigrants typically do the work that Americans won’t do, such as picking vegetables from a field. This was proven dramatically in Georgia and Alabama, where crops rotted in the fields because there was no one to harvest them. And unemployment rates actually have risen in both states since the enactment of the laws.
But rather than admit they might have reached too far with these new laws, state officials have offered outlandish proposals to help remedy the problems they’ve created. In Georgia, it was suggested that perhaps recent prison parolees could perform farm labor, but many of them didn’t stay on the job for even one full day. Not to be outdone, Alabama has floated the idea of current prison inmates working in farmers’ fields.
We can all agree that illegal immigration is a problem in this country, but immigration reform on the level attempted by Arizona, Alabama and Georgia is not the answer. As is many times the case, these laws are the actions of politicians who were eager to act on a divisive issue, and who didn’t give a thought to what the repercussions might be.
And then there’s the problem of perception. I don’t have much faith in my elected officials these days, but I do believe they’re honorable enough men and women that they wouldn’t enact any law based on racial bias. But that’s not how the outside world is viewing the events of recent months.
For proof, just take a look at this recent headline of an editorial in The New York Times: “Standing in the Schoolhouse Door.” The article goes on to equate Alabama’s recent immigration law with the civil rights injustices of the 1960s.
You can reasonably ask the question of why we should give a damn what people in New York think about us. But national and international perception does matter, and it could do irreparable harm to our ability to attract new industry in the future.
In Alabama and Georgia, where draconian cuts continue to be made in state budgets, it’s beyond preposterous that our scarce tax dollars are now being used to fight appeals of these immigration laws in federal courts.