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Economics vs. enforcement: The long-running Vidalia onion saga

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Yesterday, NPR's All Things Considered examined the looming crisis in the Vidalia onion industry in Georgia, where growers of the prized sweet onions could be left without sufficient workers because of a new anti-illegal immigration law that tightens regulations for hiring labor.

But like a twice-deported immigrant, this is not the first time that Vidalia onions, grown exclusively in a small region within Georgia, have had a run-in with immigration enforcement.

The story didn't mention the political firestorm that ensued more than a dozen years ago, when immigration agents famously targeted Georgia's Vidalia onion growers. That story in the end illustrated how difficult it is for agriculture to subsist without cheap unauthorized labor - and how economics can trump the political will to enforce immigration laws when push comes to shove.

In mid-May of 1998, immigration agents working for the Clinton administration conducted raids in the Vidalia onion-growing region of southeastern Georgia, apprehending several workers. Some growers had previously applied for H-2A guest workers, but had withdrawn their applications after the federal labor department insisted they pay more than they were willing to.

Unlike with previous raids in the area, the 1998 onion raids - and the ensuing panic among growers - took place at a precarious time, just as the harvest was getting underway.

UC Davis' Migration News report from June 1998 described the work and the scenario:

Vidalia onions are harvested in May and June by workers following a tractor-pulled harrow that loosens the ground. Workers pull the onions out of the ground, clip the stems and the roots, and then put them in 50-pound bags or into boxes. Yields average 300 bags an acre. The onions that are put into boxes are laid in bunches of four; 24 bunches are one box and the piecerate is about $3 a box.

The May 1998 raids were the first since 1995, when 178 unauthorized workers were detected. The 1995 raid reportedly did not decrease the hiring of illegal aliens because it occurred after the onions were harvested, but before some workers received final paychecks.


Soon after the raids, Georgia politicians were applying pressure to what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service to ease up on the onion growers. The UC Davis article continues:
The 1998 raids produced letters from local Congressmen to INS that complained of an "apparent lack of regard for farmers in this situation...[the raids] threaten one of Georgia's most famous and economically valuable crops, Vidalia onions." Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA) complained of the INS's "indiscriminate and inappropriate use of extreme enforcement tactics against Vidalia area onion growers...[interfering with] honest farmers who are simply trying to get their products from the field to the marketplace."

The 1998 raids produced agreement that all farmers will participate in the INS Verification Pilot Program, they will provide the INS with the names of their farm labor contractors and they will permit the INS free access to check I-9 forms in their offices.

In return, the INS promised not to launch surprise inspections.


A related Migration News report quoted a newspaper opinion piece from the time:
A typical editorial asserted: "The Georgia case demonstrated that the INS bowed to employer pressure because the operation had hit right in the middle of the onion harvest when demand for cheap labor is highest."

The federal employer verification program available at the time was not mandatory. Now called E-Verify, the online program remains optional, though some jurisdictions and states have passed measures to force employers to use it. The new Georgia law requires businesses with more than 10 employees use E-Verify to confirm employees' eligibility to work.

It would also increase penalties for people using false identification to find work. Patterned after Arizona's contested anti-illegal immigration legislation, the law would also empower local police to question some suspects about their immigration status. It is set to take effect July 1.

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