Georgia businesses brace for impacts from Trump’s immigration policies

Jesus Guerrero helps recruit migrant Hispanic farmworkers to harvest crops in South Georgia. Gary Paulk relies on those laborers to pick the grapes on his sprawling farm in Irwin County. And Meherwan Irani operates several Atlanta area Indian restaurants that serve dishes made with Georgia-grown produce.

All three entrepreneurs are deeply worried about how new Trump administration immigration policies could impact their businesses — and Georgia’s larger economy. They warn it could mean an increase in the amount Georgians pay for things like goods and services. This week, the federal government announced stringent new guidelines that dramatically expand the pool of immigrants who could face deportation.

The impact of unauthorized immigrants is significant. An estimated 8 million were working or looking for work in the U.S. in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group. They made up 5.2 percent of the labor force in Georgia, which was home to 375,000 that same year.

Many of them work long hours in physically demanding jobs in the nation’s agricultural, construction, hospitality and manufacturing industries. Supporters of Trump’s policies say deporting them would open up more jobs for legal residents. But Georgia employers say immigrants — those here legally or illegally — do much of the work U.S.-born residents won’t.

Guerrero, Paulk and Irani stressed they check their employees’ papers to ensure they are authorized to work in the U.S. And even though those workers have legal status, they said, some are still on edge. Here’s why: many have friends and relatives who aren’t here legally or they worry they themselves could be hassled by authorities.

“They are scared to go out,” Guerrero said. “There is fear in the community.”

The government sent mixed messages about its approach this week. During a stop in Mexico Thursday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly sought to alleviate concerns, saying the government would comply with human rights requirements and U.S. laws.

“There will be no use of military forces in immigration,” Kelly said, referring to a now dismissed proposal for National Guardsmen to round up unauthorized immigrants. “There will be no — repeat, no — mass deportations.”

But just hours before Kelly spoke, Trump indicated just the opposite in a White House meeting with CEOs when he talked about “getting really bad dudes out of this country at a rate nobody has ever seen before.”

“It’s a military operation,” Trump said. “Because what has been allowed to come into our country, when you see gang violence that you’ve read about like never before and all of the things, much of that is people who are here illegally.”

‘A change in the environment’

Guerrero and his father earn a commission for the farmworkers they recruit. They are now trying to line up about 250 for this year’s blueberry, blackberry, grape and tobacco harvests in Georgia. Some of those they perennially rely on have put down roots in other states and travel here every year for seasonal farm work. But they are reluctant to get on the roads now, Guerrero said, because of Trump’s immigration policies.

This week, the government issued new guidelines beginning the process of hiring 15,000 immigration enforcement and Border Patrol officials, building a new wall on the southwest border and finding more detention space. The directives also significantly increase the government’s targets for deportation, saying officials “no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”

Guerrero — a native of Mexico who became a naturalized U.S. citizen after he was illegally brought to the U.S. as a child — said he has noticed a palpable difference in how he is being perceived since Trump moved into the White House.

“I have felt a change in the environment –- the attitude against us,” said Guerrero, an Irwin County High School graduate who has a pronounced southern accent. “I do feel kind of uncomfortable sometimes in some restaurants.”

A sense of deja vu

Some of the laborers Guerrero and his father recruit work on Paulk’s 1,000-acre grape and blackberry farm in Wray. Paulk, a gregarious church deacon, is feeling a sense of deja vu. He remembers when Georgia enacted a sweeping immigration enforcement law in 2011, scaring away one-fifth of his Hispanic workers. Paulk said his family suffered about $200,000 in crop losses that year. The state’s $74.3 billion agricultural industry — Georgia’s largest industry — said it sustained crop losses of $74.9 million because of labor shortages that year.

Paulk, who partly depends on a federal guest worker program to harvest his crops, now worries the same financial losses could happen again, if labor shortages return.

“Get ready for your (food) prices to go up and folks like me to go out of business,” he said.

Paulk’s workers were already feeling anxious before the government announced its guidelines for getting tough on illegal immigration. About 60 of his family’s migrant Hispanic workers participated in “A Day Without Immigrants” demonstration, deciding not to show up for work one day last week. There wasn’t much of an impact because Paulk isn’t harvesting right now. But if that were to happen on a peak harvest day, Paulk said, “it could be a huge loss.”

Josefina Tinajero, who works as crew leader on Paulk’s farm, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her family. She now wonders what would happen to her if she encounters authorities without her green card, so she keeps it close by. She also is concerned about her siblings who are living in the U.S. without legal status.

“I’m worried,” she said. “What happens if something happens to me and they don’t give me the opportunity to get my resident card?”

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‘A rude surprise’

Up north in Atlanta, Irani sees direct connections between the agricultural and restaurant industries. An immigrant from India, Irani is the owner and executive chef for the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, which has locations in the Atlanta and Asheville, N.C., areas. Labor shortages, he said, could drive up the cost of produce, affecting his bottom line.

“All those people who are cheering rounding up undocumented immigrants and sending them home — I don’t think they are really thinking of the economic and social implications of that,” he said. “I think people will be in for a rude surprise a year from now when they see restaurants closing down because they just can’t find or afford the labor to work there or prices in grocery stores are skyrocketing because there is not enough people to work in the fields.”

More than 23 percent of restaurant workers are foreign-born, versus 19 percent for the overall economy, according to the National Restaurant Association. Many of Irani’s employees are Hispanic. And some of them are anxious about their relatives, he said.

“You may have somebody who was born in the U.S. and is a U.S. citizen but maybe their parents aren’t or their siblings aren’t and they are worried about their family unit being torn apart,” he said. “What would they do if they suddenly found their mother or their brother was suddenly being arrested and sent back to Mexico?”

Some see the potential downsides of Trump’s moves on immigration but say they believe the tradeoff is worth it.

Shawn Hanley, the vice chairman of Georgia's Immigration Enforcement Review Board, said businesses might suffer some initial pain. But he said the president’s directives could expel people with violent criminal records and deter illegal immigration.

“There could be some truth to some of those restaurants and agricultural businesses stating that things could get a little more expensive for them,” he said. “But there are bigger issues when it comes to illegal immigration in this country. We have to start fixing it from the bottom up.”

The possibility of boycotts

For Kevin Caldwell, the fear surrounding Trump’s immigration policies highlights the need to streamline the nation’s legal immigration system, a cumbersome process beset with massive backlogs and expensive requirements. The owner of Caldwell Tree Care in Roswell, he employs a Mexican native who has been waiting for six months for his green card renewal. Another employee from Mexico has been spending thousands of dollars on attorneys to help bring his wife legally to the U.S. At least a year has passed and she is still not here.

“We make it difficult for willing people who want to do the right thing. We put up all these barriers,” Caldwell said. “We unfairly discriminate against the workforce.”

Meanwhile, Georgia’s hotel industry — which employs a diverse workforce and serves tourists from around the world — is keeping a close eye on the government’s immigration policies. This month, federal courts halted Trump’s sweeping travel ban, which sought to temporarily bar visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Trump is expected to issue a revised travel ban in the coming days.

Ron Tarson, general manager of The Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, wonders how the government’s immigration policies could affect his industry’s future pool of qualified workers. He also is concerned about the possibility of boycotts.

“Will travel itself be curtailed from countries whose residents don’t support the travel ban?” he said. “Will we start seeing boycotts of countries or reduced travel from certain associations or groups that decide, ‘I’m going to do my meeting in Europe rather than the U.S.’?”

The workforce

An estimated 8 million unauthorized immigrants were working or looking for work in the U.S. in 2014. They made up 5.2 percent of the labor force in Georgia, which was home to 375,000 that same year. Here are the percentages of unauthorized immigrants who were in the workforce for certain industries in 2014:


Agriculture: 17 percent

Construction: 13 percent

Leisure/Hospitality: 9 percent

Business services/other services: 7 percent

Manufacturing: 6 percent

Source: Pew Research Center

Georgia’s economy

Some of the state’s top industries weighed in on the Trump administration’s immigration policies in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“A very important distinction that people need to start making is the difference between immigrants and illegal immigrants because it is not being talked about. Everybody is being lumped into that every immigrant is illegal in this country. And I find it extremely offensive as an immigrant to this country because I did not come here illegally.”

Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association

“Agriculture definitely has a large percentage of undocumented workers. We have known that all along. The real question from what I have seen is to what extent… the individual (laborers) are going to react to this. And the best I can tell so far is people just kind of are not coming out of the house.”

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association

“Our industry has an incredibly diverse workforce at every level. I was thinking back to 2011 (when Georgia enacted its immigration enforcement law), and what we found out at that time is our hoteliers were very much in compliance using E-Verify. And since then, they have even set their standards higher for compliance.”

Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association

“Our businesses want to hire a domestic workforce, a legal workforce. And many of them are comprised of a very high percentage of immigrants because American workers honestly don’t want to do the work in these low-skilled jobs.”

Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Georgia Urban Ag Council