Gov. Phil Bryant says he has no idea what the costs would be to Mississippi’s agricultural sector if a tough anti-immigration law caused undocumented immigrants to leave the state en masse as they have in Georgia and Alabama.
While Georgia and Alabama sustained serious economic losses from crops that went un-harvested after the workers left, Bryant does not expect that to occur in Mississippi. He indicated he’d be surprised if there were any costs because “I would hope our farmers are not knowingly hiring illegal aliens.”
Randy Knight, the head of the 180,000-member Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, predicted last fall that the economic consequences for Mississippi from a bill like Alabama’s s could run in the “hundreds of millions” over a long period of time.
Alcorn State University agricultural economist Magid Dagher said last week that predicting “hundreds of millions” in losses is an over-statement. But farm dollar losses could likely run in the “tens of millions” annually, he said.
The most immediate effect, he said, would likely be that farmers would reduce plantings of specialty crops such as fruit, vegetables and spices over fears the crops could be left in the fields to rot without workers to pick them, as occurred in Georgia last spring and summer.
“I think with those crops you could see a decline in the level of production,” said Dagher, director of the Mississippi Small Farm Development Center at Alcorn.
Ken Hood, an agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said last fall that with a tough anti-immigration measure, Magnolia State farmers would see some labor losses but nothing like what their counterparts in Alabama and Georgia are experiencing. Mississippi has a much smaller specialty crop sector that do Alabama and Georgia. “Our specialty crop (the vegetables and fruit and the like) is only about 2 percent of the value of our agriculture,” he said. “In Georgia, it’s over $500 million. We’re below $100 million.”
Bryant made his remarks on agriculture after a Capitol press conference Wednesday at which he and Mississippi Tea Party pledged support for giving Mississippi an “Alabama-style” law to keep undocumented immigrants from working in the state.
Creating a mechanism to enforce federal residency laws would save Mississippi about $25 million a year in costs related to social services, education and law enforcement, the governor said.
The Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement also took part in last Wednesday’s show of support for Brookhaven Republican Rep. Becky Currie’s House Bill 488, a measure that would require state and local law enforcement officers to ask for proof of legal residency from anyone they stopped or arrested and suspected might be in the country illegally. Her bill would also require public schools to determine the legal residency status of children seeking to enroll as well as the residency status of the children’s parents or guardians.
Schools would face detailed reporting rules, including informing the state of levels of enrollments in English as a Second Language classes.
Further, the bill would make it a “discriminatory act” for any business to discharge a legal resident while retaining a person it suspects or should have known was working in United States illegally.
Undocumented workers would also be prohibited from entering into contracts with government agencies, which could prevent them from receiving government-run utilities services.
Currie’s measure would also strengthen provisions of Mississippi’s E-Verify law, which requires employers to verify the residency status of workers.
Bryant and other supporter of the Currie bill predict that jobless Mississippians will flock to fill the jobs left open by the departure of undocumented workers from the state. They cite the drop in Alabama’s unemployment rate from 9. 8 percent in September when Alabama began enforcement of its stringent immigration identification papers law to 8.1 percent at the end of November.
Alabama labor officials say, however, they have no evidence the immigration crackdown led to the lower jobless rate. What they do know is that an additional 41,000 Alabama residents began drawing paychecks. Other than a 300-worker statewide increase in poultry plant hiring in November, the state has no data to indicate that the agriculture sector accounted for much — if any — of the 41,000 new jobs.
“Nothing is there that I can tell,” said Tara Hutchinson, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, the agency that tracks and studies employment trends in the state.
Hutchinson said a significant portion of the new hiring could be attributed to the return of Alabama’s auto manufacturing to levels not seen since the start of the recession in 2008.
Georgia adopted a stringent anti-immigration law in 2011 but has seen no drop in an unemployment rate that has remained above 9 percent for the last few years. What it has seen as well, according to Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black, is that U.S. citizens are unlikely to take want the agricultural jobs now filled by immigrant laborers.
“Local citizens do not generally possess or care to develop the specialized skills associated with agriculture and, further, do not regularly demonstrate the work ethic necessary to meet the productivity requirements of the farm business,” Black stated in the introduction to a recent report titled “Report on Agriculture Labor 2012.”
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