ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal offered a provocative solution Tuesday for farmers who claim workers have been scared away by a crackdown on illegal immigration: Hire people on probation to toil in the fields instead.
The Republican governor offered his remarks after an unscientific survey showed roughly 11,000 job openings in the state's agricultural economy. He requested the survey after growers warned that a new Georgia law targeting illegal immigrants was scaring away workers needed to harvest labor-intensive crops like peaches and berries that are easily damaged by machines.
"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 refused to discuss the idea at a news conference on an unrelated topic.
State correction officials sent a handful of the more than 15,000 unemployed people on probation statewide to work Monday on a south Georgia vegetable farm as part of a pilot program matching offenders with employers, said Stan Cooper, the state's director of probation operations. Most people on probation are nonviolent offenders.
"There was a couple who just left early, just couldn't handle the heat and stuff," Cooper said. "But there were several who stuck it out, seven, eight hours in the field."
State authorities are still finalizing the program details. No farmer will be forced to hire offenders on probation, who must generally seek work unless they are infirm but can turn down job offers. In an extreme case, an offender who continually refuses to take a job could face additional punishment.
Farmers say they can find few U.S. citizens willing to work in hot, dusty fields and criticize a federal guest work program as expensive and cumbersome.
"It's hard work," said Sam Watson, the owner Chill C Farms in Moultrie, who wants more workers and is considering hiring probationers. "It's hot. It's a lot of bending, can be long hours."
Watson said he could only hire two-thirds of the 60 workers he would have wanted to harvest squash, cucumbers and zucchini from his 300-acre farm. He blamed the state's new law targeting illegal immigrants for driving away Hispanic workers. The lack of labor forced him to leave 13 acres of squash to rot in his fields.
"We've got to come up with something," Watson said. "There's no way we can continue if we don't have a labor source to pull from."
More than half of the available jobs identified in the survey of roughly 230 farmers pay less than $9 per hour and last less than six months. Few growers offered their workers other benefits. The survey did not use scientific polling methods, and farmers who are having labor problems may have been more likely to answer it.
"There's no doubt there are some unmet labor needs," said Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, whose department conducted the survey.
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 enforce immigration laws at the border, ended automatic U.S. citizenship for children born to illegal immigrants 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.
Associated Press reporters Shannon McCaffrey and Greg Bluestein contributed to this report. Ray Henry can be reached at . http://www.twitter.com/rhenryAP