Local farmers say harvest help is taking a hit amid immigration reform

Local News

ALMA, Ga. (WSAV) – The fight over immigration reform is an issue that’s putting the squeeze on Georgia farmers as they struggle to find seasonal workers.

The process has become expensive and bogged down by delays according to blueberry producers speaking with Congressman Buddy Carter (R-Savannah).

The congressman spoke with a group of farmers in Alma to outline details of federal aid coming to help with storm recovery, but the group was quick to bring up their labor issues. Farmers say it’s hitting in the height of the blueberry harvest, a crop worth more than a billion dollars in the Peach State.  

David Harrell Lee, who grows blueberries in Bacon County, says immigration proposals placing more emphasis on hi-tech foreign workers doesn’t help his blueberry farm.

“The guy that can pick forty buckets of blueberries a day is a lot more important to me than some guy with a computer,” said Lee. He and other farmers concede they used a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when hiring harvest help, but now they’re practically cut off from the labor pool south of the border, which has a far-reaching impact on Georgia’s economy.

“One guy there in the field picking blueberries causes three upstream jobs in the economy,”  Lee said.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp says he had a direct conversation with President Donald Trump last week about the plight of Georgia’s farmer’s, especially the immigration issues affecting their ability to hire seasonal workers.

“I mentioned to the president about our farm workers, and he knows that we need comprehensive immigration reform that starts with securing the border, but also dealing with workforce issues,” Kemp said. The governor added that Trump is supportive of that, but that it’s an issue Congress has to handle.

“They are doing a lot to cut out the bureaucracy and the red tape. Some of this is going to take legislative fixes to it,” Kemp said. “There’s only so much you can do by rule, and you know executive order, because of the way the process works.

“It would be hard for me to speak to that, but I know the President is very sympathetic to that.”

Carter says congressional help through immigration reform will take years.

“I’d like to be more optimistic about that, but I really don’t think we’re gonna be able to do comprehensive immigration reform until after the presidential election,” Carter said. “However, there will be some things we can do.”

Lee and other farmers say cutting through existing red tape could be done by starting something new.

“We really need to fix where the agriculture takes care of ag labor — agriculture taking care of ag labor — and let the other labor be taken care of by the labor department,” Lee said.

He added that the review process for legal visas can take weeks, even months, and farmers are hoping this issue can be addressed before the presidential election and without an act of Congress.

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