We are close to finding out what happens when President Donald Trump meets a hand-harvested Vidalia onion. Or a blueberry bush. Or a field of carrots.
Six years ago, the Legislature passed House Bill 87, an effort aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants in Georgia.
It did just that. And Georgia farmers quickly saw their crops rot in the fields. A University of Georgia study identified a shortage of 5,244 farm laborers and $74.9 million in losses from seven crops.
If you are in this country without the proper papers, you are likely to be even more skittish than you were in 2011. Something is coming, but we don’t know what.
“It’s a military operation,” Trump said a few days ago. No it’s not, his underlings quickly said. Nor do they have mass round-ups and deportations in mind, they assure us.
And yet Jeff Sessions, our new attorney general, has withdrawn an Obama-era directive that discouraged the use of private prisons, on the grounds that it “impaired the [Bureau of Prison’s] ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
In recent sweeps, Georgia ranked second only to Texas in the number of illegal immigrants with no criminal convictions who have been detained, according to the records released by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
If all this uncertainty has an impact on Georgia farming this spring, it is likely to show up first in an onion field. On Tuesday, state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black will set the harvest date for Vidalia onions. This usually falls in mid-April, but there’s talk that the warm winter could result in an earlier start.
A certain political etiquette has sprung up around agriculture and illegal immigration. The proper way to discuss the topic is not to discuss it at all.
When we asked Black whether the Trump administration’s new emphasis on illegal immigration was having a labor impact in south Georgia, he sent this reply via a spokeswoman:
“Priority No. 1 is for these jobs to be filled with local citizens. When this is not a viable option, the legal alternative is the current H-2A guest worker program for immigrant labor. I have high hopes that the president and his administration will soon work with the Congress to improve this program’s reputation and reliability for our farmers.”
But others can afford to be more direct. At a recent meeting of the Lowndes County Commission, Sheriff Ashley Paulk discouraged any talk of round-ups of illegal immigrants. “We’ve got a lot of Hispanics working the farms here. (The farms) can’t run without them,” he said, according to The Valdosta Daily Times.
Nor are illegal immigrants a drain, the sheriff said. “They pay sales tax, they pay gas tax. (Federal) is the only tax they don’t pay.”
I called Paulk to make sure he hadn’t been misquoted. He hadn’t. “They’re not cattle. They’re human beings and many of them are good, strong Christian people,” the sheriff said. “You’ve got to prioritize your resources.”
If the feds come to him and ask for help in serving a specific warrant for a specific, violent individual, Paulk said he’d be happy to help. But he didn’t intend to tie up his jail with peaceful people at $50 per person per day.
Paulk, 71, is an unusual creature. He’s a Democrat making a comeback after an unsuccessful stab at retirement. Donald Trump took Lowndes County with 57 percent of the vote last November. So did Paulk, beating the Republican incumbent.
But the sheriff said his position on illegal immigration wasn’t a partisan one, and that neighboring sheriffs agree with him.
In next-door Echols County, carrot capital of the world, Sheriff Randy Courson echoed Paulk.
“We’re not going to go door-to-door and hunt these people down to find their immigration status. The ones that are committing serious crimes, those are the ones I’m sure immigration will end up getting involved with,” said Courson, a Republican. “There are a lot of hard-working, good people that are already here with established families. We’ve got too much other stuff that we need to be doing.”
Illegal moonshiners, for instance. They’re still around in Echols County. Really.
Until he retired from the state Senate last year, Tommie Williams was one of the saner Republican voices on illegal immigration in the Capitol, one who often spoke up against GOP excesses.
He has a pine straw operation in Lyons, Ga., about five miles away from Vidalia and the heart of Georgia’s onion operation. I asked him about the current labor situation in his area.
It can still be a struggle, he said. “Just last week, I brought in 58 H-2B laborers, paying $11 an hour to harvest pine straw.”
However, Williams said, the passage of HB 87 in 2011 taught most big farmers in the area a lesson. “That actually drove a lot of farmers to the visa programs. Because they were depending on what used to be, years ago, migrant labor,” he said.
But a shadow labor force still exists. “There are still some of those folks around. And they may have been here 25 to 30 years, and still not legal. But most farmers that aren’t hobby farmers — they’re using the guest worker programs,” Williams said.
I mentioned the conversations I’d had with sheriffs in Echols and Lowndes counties. Protection of local agriculture might not be their sole aim, Williams suggested.
The former lawmaker offered a translation of what he thought the sheriffs might have meant: “’This is more a federal issue than a county issue. We’re already overloaded, and all of our guys are underpaid, and we don’t need any more conflict.’ I think that’s probably what it is,” Williams said. “This is not like a sanctuary city or San Francisco. These guys are just overworked.”
Williams made a good point. When the Trump deportation operation finally cranks up, we’re likely to see two forms of resistance. One will be based on morality — whether it is right and proper to break up families who have lived on U.S. soil for decades, regardless of their legal status.
Odds are the other form of resistance will be fiscally based. A view — well within the Southern tradition — that if the federal government wants to rid the country of illegal immigrants, then the federal government should be willing to pay for it. You’ll find sheriffs and others arguing that anything short of that is yet another unfunded mandate from Washington.
Do not be surprised if one motivation merges with the other.