Also, according to government statistics, thousands of employers in Alabama have been ignoring a provision in the state's immigration law that requires them to register with the federal E-Verify system, a program to electronically verify workers' legal status.
And yet, at least in Georgia, the story is a bit more complicated than it may seem on the surface.
Some migrant families — both legally and illegally in the country — are indeed still avoiding Georgia because they fear discrimination and profiling, said Andrea Hinojosa, a community organizer who has worked with Latino workers in the Vidalia area for more than 20 years.
Other laborers who had worked their way up from the fields into more stable factory or construction work have turned to less stable jobs because businesses are starting to use E-Verify, a key provision of the Georgia law, Hinojosa said.
"I think it has probably put people back into hiding, put them back in the shadows," Hinojosa said. "It doesn't mean they're not working. It could mean that they have just found a job where they can't be detected."
Maria Barbosa, a legal permanent resident from Mexico, opened Los Olivos, a store that caters to the Vidalia area's Latino population, in July 2008. She estimates that her profits at the store, which stocks international phone cards, traditional foods and party supplies, dropped by about 30 percent after Georgia's law passed. It has rebounded somewhat in the past two years, but it's still not as strong as it was, she said.
One reason labor shortages in the fields have subsided — in addition to the return of migrant workers who had fled — is that some of the biggest farms in the area have started using or increased their use of a federal guest-worker program to bring in foreign workers legally.
Farmer R.T. Stanley of Stanley Farms, which grows more than 1,000 acres of onions, as well as other crops and vegetables in the area, is one of them.
Stanley said he has started to use more legal guest workers, who are brought into the country on a visa for a defined period of time, because he is not able to find as many experienced migrant workers locally as he used to.
For Barbosa, that can hurt business, because guest workers aren't nearly as reliable as customers as those who settle in and develop attachments to a community.
"They'll come in and buy some beans and tortillas and then send $1,000 to Guatemala," she said of the guest workers.
Many farmers have long complained the federal guest-worker program is too rigid and difficult to use.
"We know we've got to deal with the rules, and we do," said Bob Stafford, director of the Vidalia Onion Business Council. "We do the best we can with them."
Now farmers and workers both are turning their attention to the debate over national immigration reform and are hoping for provisions that will help them.
"We need a real good guest-worker program," Stafford said, "something that will work ... for the growers and for the workers and for the community."
Barbosa, whose husband works as a crew leader recruiting and overseeing field workers for farmers, is also watching Washington.
"People have hope," she said. "But there's been a lot of talk about immigration reform before and nothing has happened, so there's still a lot of doubt."
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.
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