Illegal immigration crackdown impacts harvests

Changes to immigration laws effect immigrant farm workers livelihood

WRAY, Ga., - One of the toughest laws yet to fight illegal immigration went into effect today in Georgia. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the most controversial provision - requiring police to check the immigration status of suspects who don't have proper identification.

But it is now a felony to use false documentation to apply for a job. CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann says Georgia farmers have been anticipating this day, and the law is already having a big effect.

In south Georgia, it's a banner year for blackberries - but a bad year for berry farmer Gary Paulk.

"There's a lot of what appear to be good berries," Paulk said. "If we had the workers."

On one corner of this family farm, twenty acres of blackberries rot away.

"This is a healthy field. And it should have been picked," Paulk said. "But there's nobody here."

Despite economy, Americans don't want farm work

Too many Mexican and Guatemalan pickers this year stayed away. They're scared away by Georgia's new crackdown on illegal immigration.

Paulk said "they're scared they will be raided on the field."

Ignacia Martinez is here illegally. She stayed, but her husband left to work farms in Washington state. They wanted to avoid any chance they'd both get arrested.

"Please leave us here," she said. "Please have some consideration with us. We're not here to harm anybody."

She's one of 200 workers picking Paulk's berries. He needs 100 more.

Money doesn't grow on trees, but it does fall from these bushes. Unpicked blackberries - for this farm, is a loss of $10,000 an acre - $200,000 in all.

Supporters of Georgia's new immigration law argued legal workers should be easy to find in a state where the unemployment rate's almost ten percent. But farmers like Paulk know most Americans want no part of picking blackberries. It's hot, back-breaking work, for $12 an hour.

Becky Musgrove started picking two weeks ago. "Sometimes I'm lazy when it's real, real hot, I don't come back in the afternoons. And that's bad to say."

"It's hard labor. And the work force is not here in America. So where's it gonna come from?" Paulk asks. "My grand-parents and my great-great-parents are buried just on that hill, a few miles from here. And I'd hate for Gary Paulk to be the one who buried the farm."

Paulk's farm faces a bigger crisis: too few hands to pick 600 acres of grapes ready for harvest next month.

We wanted to know more about how Georgia's immigration law came about. The governor's office told us today the state had to impose the law in its own defense. The state estimates illegal immigrants cost Georgia taxpayers more than $2 billion a year. Most of that to pay for the schooling and medical bills of their children.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.