New debate expected on immigrant workers in Miss.

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With Southern governors and legislatures in a hurry to enact strict immigration enforcement measures, worries have arisen across the region that farm crops will wither in the fields without enough immigrant workers to harvest them.

That prospect has set up a potential fight in Mississippi between legislators who want to take a hard line against illegal immigrant workers and agricultural leaders who say scaring them off could cost the state the same tens of millions of dollars in crop losses endured in recent months in Georgia and Alabama.

Mississippi lawmakers failed to adopt an immigration ID law last year but will try again in January.

Just how much is at stake for Mississippi's agricultural industry depends on who is doing the talking.

Ken Hood, an agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said Magnolia State farmers would see some labor losses but nothing like what their counterparts in Alabama and Georgia are experiencing.

By contrast, Randy Knight of the 198,000-member Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation says the losses from a labor shortage could run into "hundreds of millions of dollars" over the course of years in which the immigration crack down would unfold.

Hood said the difference between Mississippi and its Alabama and Georgia counterparts is the small size of the state's perishable fresh fruit and vegetable industry.

"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."

The average specialty crop farm is fewer than 200 acres, though the harvesting is typically done by hand.

Although it's important to get the crops to market quickly while still fresh, Mississippi's small specialty farmers aren't as prone to use illegal labor as are the larger specialty growers in Georgia and elsewhere, according to Hood.

"The smaller guys won't take the risks that some of the larger specialty crop operations in other states do," he said.

Hood said, however, that a smaller all-around supply of farm workers could force some specialty crop growers to pay more for labor

On the other hand, most of Mississippi's farmlands are devoted to row crops, which are harvested mechanically and require far less labor than do specialty crops, Hood said.

Knight said he is not convinced Mississippi crops can avoid a hit similar to one taken by Georgia, where a dearth of laborers led to spring fruit and vegetable losses estimated by the University of Georgia at upward of $180 million.

The threat of leaving crops un-harvested in Alabama has led that state's agriculture commissioner to suggest prison labor may be used to work the fields.

Knight said the hit should be blunted some by the effective use Mississippi farming operations have made of the federal guest worker program, but overzealous enforcement could quickly lead to huge losses of labor.

Poultry producers are particularly concerned that a crackdown on immigrant workers at processing plants in the state could dry up demand, said Knight.

"If they can't get the labor to run those plants ... our farmers aren't going to have chickens in their chicken houses," he said.

Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, is not terribly worried. The large processors who make up the bulk of the state's $2.5-billion poultry industry have been using the federal E-verify system the past three years, he said in an e-mail.

"Some use additional methods, in complying with applicable laws," Leggett said.

With an estimated 45,000 workers, 22 processing plants and about 2,000 farms, poultry is Mississippi's top agricultural commodity. Most of the processing plants and poultry farms are concentrated in East Central and Southeast Mississippi.

Hood said some fairly large raids on poultry plants five or so years ago led processors to "start taking care of business a little better."

They have created a pipeline for bringing on documented workers through the federal guest worker programs, he said, and are able to draw in replacements for those whose work permits have expired and must return to their home countries.

"They have situated themselves to where they are not going to be scrambling because they have workers lined up six months in advance," Hood said.

State Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, struck out last year in his attempt at passage of legislation to require local police to enforce federal immigration laws. He said he intends to resume the fight in the new session.

Fillingane said he wants Senate lawyers to review Alabama's stringent illegal immigrant law to determine what parts of it could be legally incorporated into a Mississippi law.

Alabama's law makes it a crime to harbor illegal immigrants or rent them an apartment. It also prohibits them from entering into contracts for such things as utilities and prohibits schools from enrolling students without proper documentation.

The law bars illegal immigrants from enrolling in any public college.

Fillingane said he has heard concerns from growers of blueberries and other crops in his district.

"I do need to flesh out some of those concerns. They are valid," he said.

He promised he would hear out farmers from across the state.

"I think we are definitely wanting to listen. We don't want to decimate one of the largest industries in the state."

The goal should be "a happy medium," he said.

Immigration law opponent state Rep. Jim Evans, D-Jackson, said he is not counting on Fillingane and other immigration hard-liners to meet halfway on the issue.

"There's always room for compromise if you have got reasonable people involved," he said, but added: "The other side has shown no room for reason."

Evans, an AFL-CIO organizer and board president of the Mississippi Immigrants' Rights Alliance, said businesses in the state, especially agricultural ones, may be willing to team up to defeat another attempt at an immigration law. A broad coalition beat back last year's attempt and is likely to try for a repeat, Evans said.

"We've had close contacts with the business sector. They've got a vested interest."

Knight said his members will insist on resistance.

"We'll do everything we can in the Farm Bureau to limit the legislation or to get some improved legislation where we can keep the labor force."

He said his organization is not opposed to a "good program that will stop some of the illegal immigrants from coming in."

What has occurred in recent times in Georgia and Alabama should bolster the argument for a more moderate approach to immigration control, Knight said.


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