Georgia immigration law worries Vidalia onion country

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LYONS, Ga. — Signs point to an exodus in Vidalia onion country. Fliers on a Mexican storefront advertise free transportation for workers willing to pick jalapenos and banana peppers in Florida and blueberries in the Carolinas. Buying an outbound bus ticket now requires reservations.

Illegal immigrants and their families who harvest southeast Georgia’s trademarked sweet onions are considering leaving rather than risk deportation in the wake of a law signed by Gov. Nathan Deal targeting illegal workers.

While most states rejected immigration crackdowns this year, conservative Georgia and Utah are the only states where comprehensive bills have passed. With the ink barely dry on Georgia’s law, among the toughest in the country, the divisions between suburban voters and those in the countryside are once again laid bare when it comes to immigration, even among people who line up on many other issues.

Sandra Almanza, 20, cried behind the counter of her mother’s store, La Michoacana, at the thought of leaving to protect her husband, an illegal immigrant from Mexico City and the father of her unborn daughter. The couple was finishing the nursery.

“We just finished painting her room, but we don’t know how long we’ll stay there,” said Mrs. Almanza, a U.S. citizen whose parents came to Lyons years ago to work in the onion fields. Their store sells phone cards to migrant laborers and wires their money back home. “We really don’t have that many options.”

The crackdown proved popular in suburban Atlanta, where Spanish-only signs proliferate and the Hispanic population has risen dramatically over the past few decades. Residents complain that illegal immigrants take their jobs and strain public resources.

“The citizens of Georgia demanded action,” said Republican Rep. Matt Ramsey, the bill’s sponsor. “They let their legislators know that this was an issue they wanted to see addressed.”

The new law penalizes people who harbor or transport illegal immigrants in some situations and allows law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who can’t show an approved form of identification. Using false documents to get a job will be a felony once the law goes into effect in July.

Private employers with more than 10 workers must eventually use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires. That doesn’t sit well with farmers or many of their illegal laborers.

Drive three hours from Atlanta into vegetable country — also a right-leaning region — and many oppose the law out of fear it will drive out the workers, legal and illegal, who stoop to pull up the Vidalia onions and other produce that make Georgia farming famous.

Easily bruised fruits and vegetables require hands-and-knees labor for planting and harvesting.

On a dusty field near Lyons, clusters of Hispanic field workers hunched over onion beds, snipping green stalks from onion bulbs in 90-degree heat. They placed the bulbs in a red plastic bucket. Each full bucket tipped into a truck earns workers 38 cents.

A good worker might fill 300 buckets daily, earning more than $100. Legal workers brought in on temporary work visas get better pay.

Alfredo Perez said he arrived illegally from Mexico three years ago. He travels between Florida, Michigan and Georgia picking crops.

“I think this law is difficult because they don’t want to let us work here. We’re not delinquents,” he said. “We usually come here during onion season, but because of the law, we’re going to have to think about whether or not we’ll come back.”

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