Today’s Courier Herald Column:
It is not terribly unusual for a sitting Congressman to speak to a group of supporters. It’s not overly unusual for said Congressman to sound an alarm over the unintended consequences of a government policy. As such, remarks made by Congressman Lynn Westmoreland to the Senoia TEA Party Patriots in Coweta County on Thursday over the plight of Georgia’s Vidalia onion crop slowly made its way to the local Newnan Times Herald on Saturday, and then were amplified by the AJC’s Jim Galloway on Monday. Perhaps a bit of additional amplification is in order.
Westmoreland’s statement regarding the indigenous South Georgia onions that “you better buy all you can this year” because next year “there’s not going to be anybody to pick them” wasn’t so much about stocking up on produce as it was a statement of farm labor in Georgia. Yet the crop known to most of Westmoreland’s suburban Atlanta constituents is the sod grown in their front lawn. Farm issues are not usually front burner political talk in Georgia’s 3rd district. The comments, and commenter, become more intriguing when certain relationships are added in for perspective, however.
Westmoreland was among the earliest and strongest backers of Governor Nathan Deal. Deal campaigned on a strong, Arizona style immigration reform law. Yet the controversial bill was opposed by the Georgia Chamber and Georgia Farm Bureau. Westmoreland’s remarks directly to a TEA Party organization stating that needed immigration reforms to allow for additional migrant workers would be “politically uncomfortable for a lot of people” could be seen as an assist to a Governor who may need to backtrack on a legislation after just one year.
Westmoreland also represents neighboring Fayette County, home to State Representative Matt Ramsey, the chief sponsor and biggest defender of the tough Georgia reform law. His remarks could be seen as a bit of a rebuke to an immigration stance that is blamed by many in the state’s southern regions for being out of touch with their economic needs. They could also be seen as giving Ramsey cover should he too need to revisit the legislation during the upcoming session.
An advisor to Westmoreland told me earlier today that the primary motivation for his remarks were a longstanding effort between he and First District Congressman Jack Kingston, and were about national issues rather than any response to state legislation. Both congressmen believe that the Federal Government has not done enough to address problems with legal immigration, and as such, the proliferation of illegal immigration has filled the void.
At the heart of the issue is the Federal Government’s inability to process enough work visas or to process those that they are able to complete quickly enough. This, combined with the low chance of being caught without a visa and minimal consequences for those who are, has led to employers opting for illegal workers and for an unending stream of those who would take the jobs.
Westmoreland believes that one restriction on legal immigrant workers is that they must not be allowed to bring families with them while employed on seasonal work visas. The draw for an American education, medical treatment required to be administered from emergency rooms, and citizenship for any child born here have changed seasonal workers into full time residents, and have turned the legal into illegal immigrants over time.
Westmoreland and Kingston appear to be getting ahead of actual legislation, softening opposition by appearing before groups who have previously denounced documenting those working here as “amnesty”. But with Georgia losing millions in its signature onion crop this year, and millions more on other crops which went unpicked, Westmoreland and Kingston see a potential opportunity to strike a balance between being tough on illegal immigration, but making the process of documenting seasonal immigrant workforces easier and more efficient.
The other curious item missing from this conversation is the participation of the Congressman whose district includes Vidalia and its onions, John Barrow. Perhaps neither Westmoreland nor Kingston has invited him to work on the legislation, or he has shown disinterest. Or perhaps they just want to make sure residents in the redrawn 12th district understand that despite what may have occurred under the Gold Dome last session, the GOP does understand that the crops need labor to be picked. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the biggest concern of the Senoia TEA Party Patriots is next year’s onion supply.