It’s Not Amnesty If It Saves The Onions

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.


  1. I Miss the 90s says:

    Oh…you mean to tell me that things are not working out the exact way a bunch of ethnocentric conservatives thought they would? You mean to tell me that those of us liberal egg-head academic types were 100% correct when we told the world that GA’s immigration policy would be detrimental to agribusiness? Darn…I am so sorry to all of you that support the immigration policy Deal adopted (along with Alabama and now South Carolina) were dead wrong.

    All it took was a little logic and a 5th grade math to figure out how bad this policy would be for southern agribusiness (and Vidalia onions are not the only crop rotting in the fields of the South: whole tomato crops have been lost in Alabama this year, watermelons are rotting the fields of GA and Alabama as well).

    Hate is expensive.

  2. SmyrnaModerate says:

    It’s painfully ironic that the only business area affected so far appears to be agriculture since those are truly jobs most Americans simply won’t do (see the great parolee experiment of 2011) and is performed mostly by migrant workers who don’t live here year round and use up those precious government services.

    Now did the legislature bother to fund any audits to make sure that other businesses are complying with the e-verify provisions of the law or the requirements to come? Of course not! Says Senator Jack Murphy (R-Cumming) “we are going to make every effort to secure funding” (AJC interview 11/8/11). From where you ask? The federal government of course. I’m sure that check will be in the mail any day now…

    • KD_fiscal conservative says:

      “…rabble rabble….constitution…rabble…broke r lawz…rabble….no taxes….”

      You know, the usual.

  3. DTK says:

    I don’t understand why people assume the farm labor market won’t clear, and that farmers will find willing workers in time for next season. Sure, wages will necessarily be higher, but is there some external factor that would keep farmers from paying the higher wages and then passing off the increase to consumers? Are there price controls on Vidalia onions that I’m not aware of? I’m not an HB 87 supporter, but it seems so odd that smart people think we won’t have onions ever again unless foreign workers are imported into the state.

    • 22bons says:

      Yes there is an external factor — the market. Given restrictions on labor the market clearing price for home grown Vidalia Onions will be higher, and quantity demanded/supplied lower. So we can either ease restrictions on labor, or see lower domestic production and more imported onions.

      I’m all for immigration reform that allows employers to fill positions with people who want to work.

      • DTK says:

        You make a good point of imported goods substituting for local goods, but in this case, I don’t think it applies. A foreign-grown onion is not equivalent to a Vidalia onion. The market is going to demand Vidalia onions, and those can only be grown in one certain region of the world. The farmers in this area can charge whatever it takes to hire the newer, more expensive labor, it would seem, because they have a monopoly on that type of onion and can pass the cost to the consumer.

        • 22bons says:

          Limiting it to the market for Vidalia Onions — and assuming there is not a near substitute — we are in the first case I mentioned with a higher market clearing price and lower quantity demanded/supplied. That still results in less production and fewer local jobs.

          • DTK says:

            I know nothing about farming onions. Is there any way this stuff can be mechanized, or does most of it have to be done by hand?

            • ricstewart says:

              I grew up in Vidalia. There’s no way to completely mechanize onion farming.
              There are near substitutes for sweet Vidalias that are grown in the Pacific Northwest, Peru, and other places, so there’s the potential that people could turn to those if Vidalia prices rise.

  4. griftdrift says:

    It’s not strictly wages. It’s access to the labor pool. Areas of high unemployment with those who might be willing to do the work are not necessarily in the same region as the work.

    • DTK says:

      I can see that as a reason for there to be a temporary lag in farm employment, but eventually that has to clear up. If migrant farm workers can traipse across the Southeast looking for employment, surely someone can eventually find their way from, say, Bibb County?

      • griftdrift says:

        You’d be surprised. There’s a reason they are called migrant workers. It’s much different for people with homes, family, community ties, etc. Breaking all that for $10 an hour is not an easy accomplishment.

        • DTK says:

          Very good point. Still, unemployment is in double digits in South Georgia. Certainly there has to be a wage point where these people would rather work in the fields than doing what they are currently doing.

  5. KD_fiscal conservative says:

    Hilarious. So the morons in the Gen. Assembly passes a piece of legislation that many of us warned would cause this EXACT problem of labor shortages, but most members of the Assembly either didn’t care of flat out lied by saying the 10% of hard-working unemployed Americans need those jobs, not mesicaisns.

    The only unintended consequence of this legislation is that some of the most conservative legislators (Westmoreland, Kingston, Olsen..etc.) are now having to beg the Feds to bail out Georgia businesses the GOP claims they care so much about.

    • chefdavid says:

      I see cheaper onions in the future. Local elected officials and Law Enforcement Officers are currently undergoing training on how to deal with the new law (Phase One). Round up all of those that look illegal and if they are arrest them (Phase two). Let the detainees work on the farms for a third meal. Only feed them two if they don’t work it (Phase three)=Free farm labor = cheaper than the former immigrant labor. Don’t call it modern slavery call it guest inmate trustee worker program.

  6. saltycracker says:

    The immigration laws must accomodate migrant workers as well as end illegal immigration.
    Illegals are non-entities being exploited by every group going to serve their self interests.
    Nothing like as class of workers that lives in fear of being identified and exists underground.
    Get some laws to sign them in, track ’em, tax ’em & protect ’em or keep them out.
    Until then states have little choice but to pass laws like HB87.

  7. BajaRat says:

    It’s absurd to grant amnesty to 20-30 million invaders so these whining farmers can get a few seasonal farm laborers. Why can’t these guys get temporary work visas for their help so long as they provide transportation to and from Mexico (or wherever) and make sure they return to Mexico (or wherever) when the work is done? Granting amnesty to the present mob of border-hopping leeches over a frickin’ onion is pure lunacy.

    • benevolus says:

      The workers have risked a lot to come here and work very hard jobs for little pay.

      I guess we could send a bunch more business to Mexico so that they could stay and pick stuff down there.

        • ricstewart says:

          Not to split hairs, but it’s a civil violation, not a criminal one, to be in the United States illegally.

          • BajaRat says:

            Under Title 8 Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, “Improper Entry by Alien,” any citizen of any country other than the United States who:
            * Enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers; or
            * Eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers; or
            * Attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact;

            has committed a federal crime.

            Violations are punishable by criminal fines and imprisonment for up to six months. Repeat offenses can bring up to two years in prison. Additional civil fines may be imposed at the discretion of immigration judges, but civil fines do not negate the criminal sanctions or nature of the offense. 🙂

            • ricstewart says:

              Illegal entry is a crime, but not illegal presence. About 40-45% of people living in the United States illegally cam legally and overstayed their visas.
              Regardless of whether or not they entered legally or illegally, immigration cases are dealt with in an administrative court, not a criminal one.

              • BajaRat says:

                Who cares what court deals with them as long as they are dealt with? The act of illegal entry or overstaying a visa is reason enough to deport said lawbreaker.

                    • benevolus says:

                      So why does it take someone to ask you about that before you comment on it? Controlling the employers is likely easier, faster, more effective, and less expensive. That should be the FIRST part of this problem that we talk about.

                • ricstewart says:

                  Since unlawful presence is a civil, not a criminal, violation, individuals accused of being here illegally are not entitled to legal representation, a jury of their peers, a speedy trial, or due process.

                  Since our immigration court system and immigrant detention system don’t have these legal protections and oversights, detainees are held for years on end before their cases are heard in court. Moral and humanitarian issues aside, think about how much money that costs taxpayers.

                  Hundreds of citizens and legal immigrants have been wrongly detained or deported in this system. U.S. citizen veterans have spent months in ICE detention centers.

                  If immigration cases were tried in criminal courts, taxpayers would have to pay for prosecutors and public defenders, but we would also save money on lengthy detentions and accused undocumented immigrants would also be entitled to legal representation, which would help prevent legal immigrants and citizens from being wrongly detained and deported.

                  So yes, it does make a difference what court deals with them.
                  There are plenty of pros and cons on both sides of the criminalization argument; I don’t care whether you favor or oppose criminalization, but there absolutely is a difference.

  8. Speaking of onions, I was listening to Boortz on my way into the office yesterday when he first covered the story about someone breaking into a house in Vandalia, Ohio. Boortz then said… you know, as in Vandalia Onions? Apparently since he flies back and forth between Atlanta and his Florida home, he doesn’t quite realize Vidalia is in Georgia.

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