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Georgia farmer tells impact of immigration laws on his farm

2013_0624-GaFarmer2 Jason Berry, right, a vegetable farmer from Georgia, talks to reporters about the importance of immigration reform after a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)


Conservative House members should vote for comprehensive immigration reform, a Georgia blueberry and vegetable farmer told The Hagstrom Report this week after meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House.

“It extremely important for the producers of fruits and vegetables to have a comprehensive immigration bill pass,” Jason Berry said Monday. Berry owns a 60-acre organic vegetable farm near Vidalia, Ga., and manages a 200-acre blueberry farm near Baxley, Ga., that he recently sold to Dole Food.

“Perishable commodities need to be picked. I hope [members of Congress] understand the current system is not reliable,” Berry added. “We are never going to get a piecemeal deal. I hope they understand that.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said House Republicans will meet on July 10 to decide how to proceed on immigration reform legislation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has said the House should take up the legislation in pieces, and the committee has passed a farm worker bill Goodlatte sponsored that is different from the Senate bill that the Ag Workforce Coalition and the United Farm Workers support.

The Senate passed the immigration bill by a vote of 68 to 32, but Georgia’s Republican senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, did not vote for it. Chambliss said he considered the provisions on citizenship too generous to farm workers and some provisions onerous for farm owners. (See following story.)

Jason Berry

Jason Berry
Berry, who said the Senate bill was “not perfect,” urged its passage.

He said he became active in politics after Georgia passed a law in 2011 that made undocumented farm workers subject to arrest. That year, Berry said, he lost a “significant portion” of his Vidalia onion crop, because even legal workers were afraid to come to Georgia and avoided traveling through the state as they went to other states to work.

The Georgia law, he said, “really put us in a precarious situation. It almost put us under.”

“We need a lot of skilled hand laborers,” Berry said, noting that while he followed the state government’s recommendation to hire prison probationers and local people to pick onions, they couldn’t pick fast enough to make a living.

Berry said he pays his laborers by piece and that the immigrant laborers pick fast enough to make $15 to $20 per hour. The probationers and local workers were so slow they only earned $2 per hour and by law he had to pay them a “wage makeup” to get up to the minimum wage.

He said the Georgia law remains on the books, that he now has to pay sign-up bonuses to get workers, and that he still does not have an adequate supply of help because the workers “have heard horror stories from others.”

Berry, who was part of a group of business leaders and entrepreneurs who met with Obama, said he found the president “down to earth and upbeat” about immigration reform.