GA gov proposes ex-cons pick fruit, cotton instead of immigrants

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The “Human Rights Summer” led by a coalition of activists and immigrants who are opposed to House Bill 87 (HB 87) is set to get hotter as the state government prepares to embark on the enforcement of this new law that criminalizes undocumented immigrants. And if the thousands of people who came out to protest HB 87 during the Independence Day weekend is any indication of what’s to come, the state will need to prepare itself for a turbulent and polarizing battle.

Championed and signed into law by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, HB 87 calls for undocumented workers to be charged with felonies and given punishments of up to 15 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Even though a federal judge filed an injunction to outlaw a key piece of the law that would lead to the arrests of citizens driving in a car with undocumented immigrants, the damage was already done and many people have fled the state as a result of its passage. Governor Deal came up with a plan that would help solve the problem of labor shortages caused by the mass exodus. Why not have probationers fill the void left by workers and make them work in the fields picking produce and Georgia’s main cash crop, cotton, for paltry wages?

With 60 percent of the 26,000 parolees in Georgia considered to be “non-white,” and African-Americans making up nearly 50 percent of the state’s 103,000 probationers, this has sparked outrage in minority communities. It has also left many wondering whether this program is benefiting people on probation or if this is a modern-day version of involuntary servitude that will have a negative effect on a state where so many civil rights victories were waged and won.

“The suggestion of sending probationers into the fields to solve our self-inflicted economic wound is nothing more than retrogressing to an earlier shameful time in our state’s history of victimizing hundreds of mostly black men and condemning them to near slavery, while the rest of us watch silently,” Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin wrote in her blog. “Now as then, many of the potential victims have poor if any legal representation and few employment opportunities. It is time to step back…to some truly useful public policy in immigration reform and in jobs development and not pervert our criminal justice system yet again.”

“It is outrageous involuntary servitude to force parolees to work in these types of jobs,” said Gerald Lenoir, coordinator of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in California. “This is virtually slave labor and they’re basically reinstating the old chain gangs again. I believe this is all part of the agenda to cancel out the gains of the civil rights movement.”

The purpose of the plan was not to exploit people on probation but to provide them with opportunities for employment, says Governor Deal, who came up with the plan with the help of Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Mark Butler from state’s Department of Labor. The program is simply intended to keep the farming industry afloat by filling the 11,000 openings available in agriculture with the 15,000 unemployed people on probation statewide. The more than 460,000 others, or 9.8 percent of the state population, who are out of work in Georgia, are also eligible to apply for these jobs.

“The agriculture industry is the number one economic engine in Georgia and it is my sincere hope to find viable and law abiding solutions to the current problem our farmers face,” said Governor Deal. “I believe this will be a great partial solution to our current status as we continue to move towards sustainable results with the legal options available.”

“I would like to stress that these are not prisoners, nor is this forced labor,” adds Jen Talaber, a representative from Governor Deal’s office. “These are probationers that have chosen to come work for the farmers. With unemployment rates very high in this particular pool, this gives them a chance at employment that they may not have otherwise. The governor remains optimistic about the program and is encouraged by the feedback he has received from farmers.”

Employment programs for inmates, parolees and probationers are not a new phenomenon. With millions of people behind bars and on parole or probation, this population has long been sought out to fill private sector jobs that pay inexpensive wages. According to the New York Times, “more than 80,000 inmates held traditional jobs, working for governments or private companies and earning 25 cents to $7 an hour” in 2000. And more than 78 percent of people on parole in Georgia eligible for employment found jobs in 2009 because of initiatives like the Offender Probationer Parolee State Training Employment Program (TOPSTEP). Whether programs like this help these individuals or allow companies to take advantage of a low-cost workforce has often been debated, with law enforcement officials pointing to research showing that inmates who work are less likely to commit crimes when they are released.

While probationers have an opportunity to choose the companies they work for, individuals who are incarcerated have little choice in the work they are tasked with, and because of this, the response to prison employment programs has been divided. Many activists say that prisoners need to earn a decent living wage and that forcing them to work is a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. In December 2010, inmates in at least four prisons in Georgia went on strike in protest of poor living and working conditions, and in an interview with Democracy Now, prison activist Elaine Brown spoke about inmates’ reactions.

“There is no activity other than the work tasks that they’re assigned to do. In other words, there’s no real educational opportunities,” she said. “They’re not paid one dime in the state of Georgia. So they’re not exactly being paid enough money to accumulate anything over the years of their incarceration and maybe come out of the prison with more than the $25 check they give them upon release.”

Although the details of the current Georgia program to replace agriculture workers are still being ironed out, there is no mandatory requirement for parolees or probationers to take these farming jobs and farmers will not be forced to hire these individuals either. While agriculture is a $69 billion per year industry in Georgia, probationers will receive a wage of $7.25 to $9 per hour, with no benefits, paid by private farmers and not by state funds. Despite the opportunity to better their lives and earn an honest living, there have been reports of probationers who are either refusing the jobs or quitting after a few hours or a few days. Politico and the Associated Press reported that out of the first group which began working in pilot programs at two Georgia farms in June 2011, as many as two-thirds of participants either walked off the job or chose not come back for a second day.

“Those guys out here weren’t out there 30 minutes and they got the bucket and just threw them in the air and say, `Bonk this. I ain’t with this. I can’t do this,’” Jermond Powell, a 33-year-old probationer working at a farm in Leslie, told Politico. “They just left, took off across the field walking.”

In the same article, Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, said farms have already lost $300 million and could lose up to $1 billion if it does not get access to a reliable workforce.

“People come out and they have an idea of what they’re going to be doing,” Tolar said. “As soon as they start doing it and find out that its more difficult and more work required than they’d anticipated, they leave.”

Meanwhile, those undocumented immigrants in Georgia who are willing to take on jobs in the state’s number one industry are left in limbo as the federal and state government grapple over who should be in charge of enforcing immigration laws. And while the farming industry, which brings $65 dollars into the state’s economy, stands to lose from laws like HB 87, another industry, the private prison sector, stands to gain billions with the construction of detention centers that will house undocumented immigrants who are arrested. This new development is worrisome to some because of the influence that these corporations already have on state and federal governments.

Emily Tucker, the director of policy and advocacy at the Detention Watch Network, claims the companies most heavily invested in the business of immigration detention, including Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group Inc., and the Management and Training Corporation, have increasingly devoted resources over the last decade to lobbying for policies and programs that will increase their opportunities to do business with the government.

“For years, private prison firms have played a critical role in shaping public policy around immigration detention, pursuing the bottom line at the expense of basic civil rights and tax payer dollars,” said Tucker. “This data highlights deep corporate investment in the detention business, raising concerns about how the corporate profit-motive is fueling the expansion of the detention system as a whole.”

“There are four immigration detention centers in Georgia, one of which is the largest in the nation, and an investigation in Arizona revealed that the private prison industry had a strong influence on the passage of State Bill 1070,” adds Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia. “This is an issue that we need to pay more attention to because if we allow it to continue, there will be many human rights implications that the state will have to deal with in the years to come.”

CCA spokesperson and vice president of communications Steve Owen adamantly denies these allegations. “It is CCA’s policy and practice not to engage in legislation involving crime or sentencing policies,” he said. “CCA has never lobbied or had any role in passage of Arizona’s or any state’s immigration laws, as the bill’s sponsor and Arizona’s Governor have publicly affirmed repeatedly. We have worked in good faith and strong partnership with federal, state and local government for nearly 30 years while being held to the highest standards of accountability.”

With bills like the ones signed into law in Georgia and Arizona being considered in 19 other states across the nation, including Texas, Wisconsin, Utah and Oklahoma, the impact and resolution of the immigration battle remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however. The sentiment brought on by Georgia’s HB 87 has not only divided people in communities, but it has also formed an unlikely bond between the immigrant and the African-American communities.

“The black community needs to realize that we have more in common with immigrants than we think,” said Lenoir. “And that’s why we need to join together to fight injustice because we know what it’s like to be treated unfairly and to be economically exploited and discriminated against. African-Americans need to be in solidarity with them and help ensure that there is fair path to legalization and citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.”