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.
It 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.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black's office proposed the cuts as it attempted to trim $1 million from its budget. Legislators, who must pass the budget, started their review of agency spending plans this week.
"After the evaluation of the pilot program for the Ag Labor specialist, it was determined that the results did not meet the desired outcomes," Black spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Yearta said in a statement. "Difficult decisions must be made during these trying economic times."
The Georgia 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.
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.