Candidates for Georgia’s Agricultural Commission disagree on the use of migrant farm labor

Agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry and the state’s farms rely heavily on the labor of seasonal migrant workers. Going into the midterm elections, 23 percent of voters named immigration as the most important issue facing the country, and Georgians have had to reconcile their political beliefs with the prospect of produce rotting in the fields.

Republican incumbent for Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black said a primary objective of his was to ensure farm laborers are working legally. Today, many migrant farmworkers take advantage of H-2A visas, which grant temporary entry into the United States for seasonal agricultural work and requires employers pay for their workers’ transportation, meals and housing.

Black, citing bureaucracy, says that the H-2A visa program is “too cumbersome” for farm owners. Instead, he supports a bill sponsored by Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia that would overhaul the program. The measure, known as the Ag and Legal Workforce Act, includes a “touch-back” provision where workers are required to return to their home country before applying for another visa. The measure would also transfer management responsibility from the Department of Labor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Some law enforcement officials like Sheriff Randy Courson of Echols County have said that they don’t go looking to prosecute undocumented workers.

“There are a lot of hard-working, good people that are already here with established families,” Courson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve got too much other stuff that we need to be doing.”

Black denies that. “What I know about producers in the state of Georgia is that their greatest desire is for a legal workforce. They are willing to pay a competitive wage for a legal, sober, reliable and skilled workforce.”

Democratic challenger Fred Swann has some disagreements. He suspects that many farmers are happy to employ undocumented workers because they won’t have to meet the labor requirements enforced by the H-2A visas that could cut into their profits.

As for the farmers that do use the program, Swann insists that they’re happy about it. “It’s hard for farmers to find local hands because Americans want more consistent, year-round work,” he said.

He supports expansion of the H-2A visa program and its rights for workers.

“I recently spoke to a peach farmer in middle Georgia who relies heavily on seasonal workers,” said Swann. “They see the same people over and over again and develop real relationships with them and rely on them because of the state of the work.”