ATLANTA, Georgia — A controversial immigration law in the US state of Georgia has brought unintended results, forcing farmers to reluctantly turn to ex-convicts as Latin American manual workers flee.
Low-skilled, undocumented workers, who for years have formed the backbone of this southern state's farming economy, have bolted in the lead-up to the law taking effect on July 1, fearing deportation if caught working here.
The measure's mainly Republican supporters argue that the state needs to enforce immigration laws in the absence of effective federal action, saying schools, jails and hospitals are overburdened by illegal aliens.
But as the full cost of the immigration reform emerges in the form of an estimated millions of dollars worth of crops rotting in fields, it could alarm other states that have passed or are considering similar strict measures.
Georgia labor officials estimate a shortage of some 11,000 workers in the agriculture sector, and the state has enacted a program where people on probation, who often have difficulty finding jobs, are sent into the fields.
Melinda James, of Osage Farms in Rabun Gap, admits the "probationers" are not her first choice for the jobs, which often involve long hours working in fields under the punishing southern heat.
But with the gaping hole in their normal workforce, many reluctant farmers have little choice.
"We're going to have to train them -- that's a cost we're going to have to absorb," James told AFP.
"If they pass a drug test and they're drug free, we'll use them if we have to," she added, pointing out that many workers they used to employ "are scared to come to Georgia."
Other farmers, such as Dan King of Five Brothers Produce in Rebecca, refuse to hire people on probation despite the shortage in laborers.
"I don't need to make it easy for someone to case my place and come back and steal from me after hours," he said.
The new law's impact is being closely watched in neighboring South Carolina, where opponents have slammed a proposed immigration measure as a "Draconian racial profiling bill" that would take a similar toll on the economy.
The American Civil Liberties Union has said it will join a coalition of other rights groups in filing a lawsuit against it if Governor Nikki Haley signs the measure -- already approved by the legislature -- into law.
The ACLU said the law would invite police and employers to racially profile Latinos and demand to see documents proving citizenship.
Marielena Hincapie, head of the National Immigration Law Center, said similar bills passed in Arizona, Indiana, and Utah are "unconstitutional" and betray "American values."
In Georgia, the effects of the law have been felt far beyond farms.
Of the estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States, 425,000 live in Georgia, making it the state with the seventh largest number of illegal immigrants, the Pew Hispanic Center said in a February report.
A provision in the law targeting transport used by illegal immigrants has sown fear among taxi drivers in Atlanta and other cities, who fear they could be held responsible for unknowingly picking up undocumented workers.
Quinton Washington, an Atlanta attorney representing cab and limousine drivers, said they could be arrested and face a $1,000 fine, a court date and an impounded car if one of their passengers turns out to be an illegal alien.
That has yet to happen, but Washington warned that it was unclear how such a situation would be dealt with.
"There has to be a provision protecting the common carrier," he said, adding that his group may choose to file a lawsuit but was waiting for word from law enforcement agencies on how they will apply the new law.
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