Immigration bill has Georgia agribusinesses concerned

The Macon TelegraphFebruary 21, 2011 

Donald Chase and his father farm 1,600 acres in Macon County, and if proposed immigration rules being considered by Georgia lawmakers go into effect, Chase and lot of farmers are worried it will cost them more than time and money.

Some farmers say it could put them out of business.

While the immigration rules intended to stem undocumented workers would affect many private employers, agriculture is the state’s largest industry -- valued at more than $11.3 billion in 2009 -- and would be one of the hardest hit.

At the heart of House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40, as originally written, is that employers will be required to use E-Verify -- a federal online employment verification program -- to confirm the legal status of employees to work in this country. It would not apply to farmers who use the H-2A program, sometimes referred to as the federal guest worker program, which allows farmers to fill temporary jobs with non-U.S. citizen workers.

E-Verify, authorized in 1996, is administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service and compares information from an employee’s Form I-9 -- Employment Eligibility Verification -- to data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to confirm employment eligibility.

Although currently a voluntary program in most states, E-Verify is mandatory for employers with federal contracts or subcontracts that contain the Federal Acquisition Regulation E-Verify clause.

If undocumented workers are knowingly employed, employers could be fined or serve time in jail.

“The whole idea is it puts the burden on us as employers to police the whole system when this is a federal issue,” Chase said. “Besides putting an undue burden on the employer, it puts agriculture at a huge disadvantage. I don’t want to be locked up.”

Chase Farms Inc. raises peanuts and corn and has a poultry operation. This past week, Chase was spraying a field of winter rye off Pine Level Road near Montezuma to prepare the field for planting corn in a few weeks. Nearby, a crew was working on an irrigation system.

When Chase hires Hispanic workers to work on the farm, he asks for proof that they are in this country legally and he withholds all required taxes and Social Security based on the law, he said. Immigration laws have many exceptions and are complicated to follow, he said.

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