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Deal: Farmers should hire probationers
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ATLANTA - Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday that farmers who complain that a crackdown on illegal immigrants has scared off their workforce should hire people on probation to work the fields.

The Republican governor offered his provocative solution after reviewing a voluntary, unscientific survey that showed roughly 11,000 open jobs in the state's agricultural economy. He requested the survey after growers warned that a new Georgia law targeting illegal immigrants was scaring away Hispanic workers needed to harvest labor-intensive crops like peaches and onions that cannot be pulled by machine.

"I believe this would be a great partial solution to our current status as we continue to move towards sustainable results with the legal options available," Deal said in a written statement. He did not take questions about the idea at a news conference.

No farmer was required to complete the voluntary survey. It does not necessarily include a representative sample of all agriculture employers and cannot be used to draw exact conclusions.

A pilot program matching some of the 100,000 people on probation with available farms jobs could start as early as this week, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said. He said state officials were still working out the details.

"This was just kind of a brainstorm idea we hit on last week," Black said. State lawmakers have tasked Black's office with researching options for improving an existing federal guest worker program. That report is due Jan. 1.

Georgia's new law targeting illegal immigrants takes effect July 1 and is among the toughest in the country. It will eventually require many farmers to use a federal database called E-Verify to make sure new hires are in the country legally. It also allows police to check the immigration status of suspects who cannot show an approved form of identification. Civil liberties groups have filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the law unconstitutional and bar it from being enforced. All or parts of similar laws enacted in Arizona and Utah have been blocked by courts.

It was unlikely the survey results were going to shift Deal's position. While in Congress, the conservative politician supported legislation that would have allowed U.S. military troops to patrol the border, ended birthright citizenship and expanded the use of the E-Verify database.

Farmers have urged Georgia's leaders to keep out of the immigration debate. The Georgia Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm lobbying group, says the issue should be reserved for the federal government.