Leaders of Georgia's vital farming industry blamed Wednesday a draconian new immigration law for labor shortages estimated to have cost the southern US state at least $75 million.
A study by the University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development found Tuesday that peak harvest employment would have been 12,930 but that there was a shortage of 5,244 workers in the fields.
The study did not explain the shortages but farmers said a new immigration law had scared off Hispanic workers who were now afraid of being deported to Mexico, with their children being left behind in the United States.
Georgia Immigration Bill 87, passed in the spring, empowered law enforcement officials to start deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants.
A controversial system called E-Verify was put in place to document "guest workers," but farmers said it wasn't working.
"Here is one provision of E-verify," said Melinda James of Osage Farms in north Georgia. "If I sign up I have to guarantee a worker 40 hours of work a week. What if it rains for a week? Well, I still have to pay the worker. I also have to contribute to the transportation of workers from their homes.
"The program has to be simplified and made cheaper."
Georgia attempted to fill the needs of farmers by sending probationers, or recently released prisoners, to pick crops but farmers said those workers could not handle the physical demands of long hours in the fields.
"Georgia is the poster child for what can happen when mandatory E-verify and enforcement legislation is passed without an adequate guest worker program," said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.