John Bazemore, AP
VIDALIA, Ga. — Two years after Georgia and Alabama passed laws designed to drive away people living in the country illegally, the states' agricultural areas are still heavily populated with foreign workers, many of whom don't have legal authorization to be here.
There are still concerns over enforcement and lingering fears among immigrants, but in many ways it appears that people have gone on with life much as it was before the laws were enacted.
Farmers say many of the foreign workers have returned because the laws are not heavily enforced and it once again seems safe to be here.
But the story is more complicated than that: Some are still staying away or have gone underground, according to community activists, and some farmers say they are filling labor shortages not with returning immigrants but with workers hired through a program that grants temporary legal visas.
Meanwhile, employers and workers in both states are watching as Congress wrestles over plans that aim to simultaneously prevent future illegal immigration and offer a chance at citizenship for millions now living in the country illegally.
Georgia and Alabama were two of five states to pass tough crackdowns on illegal immigration in 2011, a year after Arizona made headlines for a hard-line immigration enforcement law that ended up being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Immediately after the laws were passed, farmers in both states complained that foreign workers who lived there had left and that the itinerant migrants who generally came through were staying away. American workers weren't stepping forward to perform the back-breaking work immigrants had done for years, and crops were rotting in the fields because of a lack of laborers, they said.
An informal survey conducted in Georgia showed that farmers of onions, watermelons and other hand-picked crops lacked more than 11,000 workers during their spring and summer harvests of 2011, Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on immigration enforcement and farm labor.
But then as courts began blocking significant elements of the law and some loopholes became apparent, some of the workers who had fled for fear of arrest and deportation returned. Others were drawn back by their longstanding ties to the communities.
Victor Valentin, 25, and his wife, Maria Gonzales, 23, came to the Vidalia onion growing region in south Georgia five years ago and found work quickly. But when the state passed its law cracking down on illegal immigration, they feared they would be caught and deported, and left for neighboring North Carolina.
They didn't last long. With two young children and no support network there, life was difficult. At the same time, the situation in Georgia seemed to have calmed down.
"We still talked to people here, and we heard there weren't really any problems, that things hadn't really changed," Valentin said, explaining that the family decided to return to the Vidalia area after about nine months. He's found work harvesting pine straw since his return.
This year, Black and a number of industry leaders in Georgia told The Associated Press they haven't heard of any labor shortages.
The situation in Alabama is similar.
"No one seems to be having any problems," said Alabama's agriculture commissioner, John McMillan, who added that he has spoken with farmers who saw migrants return once it became clear the law passed in Alabama was, in practice, mostly toothless. Courts blocked most of the law's toughest sections, including one that required public schools to check students' citizenship status, and the massive arrests envisioned by some simply didn't happen.
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