Georgia Fills Job Gap With Modern-Day Chain Gangs

Mark Twain once said, “The past never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” Seventy-nine years since southern farmers enlisted the police to round up black “vagrants” to fill the gaps in farm employment, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has nearly made poetry.

Enlisting the help of the Georgia Department of Corrections, Deal developed a pilot plan that would place 150,000 probationers into some 11,000 jobs left after migrant workers fled the state, due in large part to HB87, the Arizona-style immigration law passed this year by the state legislature and signed by Deal.

The governor’s solution is an explicit form of structural racism, mixed with a healthy dose of rabid xenophobia, and speaks to larger issues surrounding the national debate over immigration.

For instance, probationers are required to seek gainful employment, but are regularly denied, even with a non-violent criminal record; unemployment in this unskilled population stands at a grimacing 25%. The fact that the solution to immigration issues (and Georgia’s self-inflicted economic problem) is a near-coercive labor plan, orchestrated by the state’s justice system, makes it ancillary to a national debate around immigration and migrant labor that has gone silent at a time when it should be the loudest.

Georgia’s prison population stands at 66% non-white, while nearly 60% of the general population is white. Thus, in an effort to combat migrant-flight, Deal explicitly selected minorities to fill a specific labor void. While Deal did not create racial inequality in Georgia’s judicial system, exploiting it to economically benefit agriculture interests, already recipients of federal largess, is nothing short of criminal.

In addition, Judge Thomas Thrasher, who has invalidated portions of HB87 (namely provisions to allow officers to stop suspects and demand documentation on-site), said that the “apparent legislative intent,” by the law’s authors, was “to create such a climate of hostility, fear, mistrust, and insecurity that all illegal aliens will leave Georgia.”

These two incidences, the denunciation of Georgia’s immigration law and Deal’s plan, expose a logic and pattern of state priorities after political posturing is put aside: If we cannot use cheap and reliable migrant labor (the same labor that has, along with agriculture subsidies, provided some of the cheapest food in the world), we will move one rung higher and employ probationers (e.g. largely minority, unskilled, impoverished laborers).

While the national conservative narrative around immigration is inherently legalistic, i.e., “They broke the law, they should be punished and deported,” the reality is much more complex.

While opponents of the plan may wring their hands in frustration at Georgia’s laws and Deal’s plan, they both shed light on the fundamental, but less discussed portions of the debate. They should be discussing migrants’ working conditions in farm states, the effects of stringent anti-immigration laws on the economies of many states and the country as a whole, and the fundamental freedom of human mobility.

The solution is to address these issues first as a dialogue, then as a replacement for the current legislative agenda with reforms such as a mandated wage floor for field workers, end probationer-specific recruitment, organize migrant unions, or detail paths to citizenship without resorting to objectively harmful measures in HB87.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons