In 2004, a film called "A Day Without a Mexican" explored a thought experiment: what would happen if all of California's Mexican population suddenly vanished? The "mockumentary" was based on the premise of a magical-realist pink fog that descends on the state and takes away all residents with blood ties to Mexico. The result? The state's economy grinds to a screeching halt.
This year's immigration fight is showing the prescience of this farcical film. With states pushing draconian immigration measures to scare away undocumented immigrants, and congressional Republicans introducing additional enforcement measures with no offer of legalization for workers already here, we are beginning to see just how economically damaging these policies can be. Nowhere is this truer than in Georgia, where farmers are finding it nearly impossible to replace the immigrant workers--not all Mexicans, to be sure--who are fleeing the state in fear of draconian new legislation.
Georgia's law, HB 87, mirrors provisions of Arizona's controversial SB 1070, by empowering local police officers to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of violating any law (including a traffic violation). Among other harsh provisions, the law also follows an earlier Arizona law by mandating that businesses use a federal electronic verification system (E-Verify) to check that all their workers have legal authorization. It also dictates sentences of up to 15 years for workers who use false identification to get hired.
The law is problematic for several reasons. It infringes on the federal government's exclusive authority to enforce immigration law. It also raises serious concerns about racial profiling and public safety; police forces have limited resources and need trust from the communities in which they work, both of which HB 87 will erode.
This week, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the most controversial sections of HB 87, but the law is already having an impact: the economic devastation caused by scaring away immigrants. Georgia is an agricultural heartland, producing peaches, Vidalia onions, berries, and a host of other produce--all of which need human hands to pick. In recent decades, native-born Americans have turned their backs on such daunting, seasonal, outdoor work; immigrant laborers have picked up the slack. But now these workers are fleeing Georgia, leaving the state with an estimated 11,000-worker shortfall. The estimated price tag for farmers' lost production: approximately $300 million.
Farmers and other business leaders warned Governor Nathan Deal and state legislators about this likely outcome. But Deal and company refused to listen, instead heeding dubious estimates by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a restrictionist organization deemed a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its ties to eugenicists and white separatists.
Now, the restrictionists' economic arguments are being laid bare as the crops rot in immigrant workers' absence. Not only will agricultural profits decline; so too will tax revenues from this sector of the economy. Governor Deal, belatedly realizing the law's consequences, has tried to encourage unemployed probationers to take the farm jobs. This, too, appears to be failing--in a pilot effort, only half of the few probationers who showed up lasted more than one day, and the potential universe of only 2,000 probationers falls well short of the 11,000 needed laborers.
Now, pro-immigrant groups in Georgia are planning to reinforce the extent of the state economy's dependence on immigrants. The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) is planning a Day Without Immigrants for July 1st, the day HB 87 is scheduled to take effect. In an effort to build momentum to push back against the law, GLAHR and its allies are asking immigrants and Latinos not to work or purchase or sell goods to demonstrate the community's economic importance to the state. If enough people heed the call, it could be a powerful statement to Georgia's legislators.
But this issue extends beyond Georgia. States like Alabama, Indiana, and South Carolina have passed similar legislation. Moreover, leading congressional Republicans--notably Rep. Elton Gallegly (California), Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), and Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa)--are pushing a mandatory federal E-Verify bill. Their rhetoric mirrors Governor Deal's; they deny the likely economic devastation wrought by clamping down on undocumented workers without offering any new path to citizenship. They have even taken offense at the notion that hard-working American citizens would not want these jobs.
This may be a popular talking point, but Georgia offers just the latest data point to confirm what Smith and King don't want to accept: virtually no native-born Americans or naturalized citizens are willing to go pick our strawberries. State growers' associations and the United Farm Workers (UFW) have known this for years, after launching extensive campaigns to recruit workers to no avail. As comedian Stephen Colbert remarked after spending one day on a farm last year, "This brief experience gave me some small understanding of why so few Americans are clamoring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant fieldworker."
As members of Congress consider implementing another enforcement-only measure, E-Verify, with no concomitant effort to retain workers already in this country, they would do well to consider the nightmare "Day Without a Mexican" scenario unfolding in Georgia. In addition to tearing communities and families apart and jeopardizing all of our civil rights, enforcement-only policies put our economy in grave danger.
(Cross-posted at www.americasquarterly.org)