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Probationers wilt as stand-ins for migrant field hands

Immigration law culls pickers

- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 22, 2011

LESLIE, Ga. — It's 3:25 p.m. in a dusty cucumber field in southern Georgia. A knot of criminal offenders who spent seven hours in the sun harvesting buckets of vegetables by hand have decided they're calling it quits — exactly as crew leader Benito Mendez predicted in the morning.

Unless the cucumbers come off the vine soon, they will become engorged with seeds, making them unsellable. Mr. Mendez's crew of Mexican and Guatemalan workers will keep harvesting until 6 p.m., maybe longer. Not so the men participating in a new state-run program aimed at replacing the Latino migrants Georgia farmers say they've lost to a new immigration crackdown with unemployed probationers.

"Tired. The heat," said 33-year-old Tavares Jones, who left early and was walking down a dirt road toward a ride home. He promised Mr. Mendez he'd return the next morning. "It's hard work out here."

Mr. Mendez urged another man to stay. "I need you today," he said. "These cucumbers not going to wait until tomorrow."

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal started the experiment after farmers publicly complained they couldn't find enough workers to harvest labor-intensive crops such as cucumbers and berries because Latino workers — including many illegal immigrants — refused to show up, even when offered one-time or weekly bonuses. One crew that previously worked for Mr. Mendez told him they wouldn't come to Georgia for fear of risking deportation.

Farmers told state authorities in an unscientific survey that they had more than 11,000 unfilled agriculture jobs, but it's not clear how that compares to prior years or whether the shortage can be blamed on the new law.

For more than a week, the state's probation officers have encouraged their unemployed offenders to consider taking field jobs. Most offenders are required to work while on probation, but statistics show they have a hard time finding jobs.

Georgia's unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent, but corrections officials say among the state's 103,000 probationers, it's about 15 percent. Still, offenders can turn down jobs they consider unsuitable, and harvesting is physically demanding.

The first batch of probationers started work last week at a farm owned by Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. In the coming days, more farmers could join the program.

So far, the experiment at Mr. Minor's farm is yielding mixed results. On the first two days, all the probationers quit by mi-afternoon, said Mr. Mendez, one of two crew leaders at the farm.

"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,' " said Jermond Powell, a 33-year-old probationer. "They just left, took off across the field walking."

Mr. Mendez put the probationers to the test June 15, assigning them to fill one truck and a Latino crew to a second truck. The Latinos picked six truckloads of cucumbers compared with one truckload and four bins for the probationers.

"It's not going to work," Mr. Mendez said. "No way. If I'm going to depend on the probation people, I'm never going to get the crops up."

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