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Neo-slavery rises in Georgia?

By Brian E. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Jun 30, 2011 - 11:05:04 AM

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Exploited parolees replace exploited migrants on corporate farms, say advocates

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'It sounds eerily reminiscent of the combination chain gangs and sharecropping, because you are saying there is no other option for you, you have to do this kind of work at a very minimal cost.'
—Abel Muhammad, Latino representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam

(FinalCall.com) - When Georgia Governor Nathan Deal placed his signature on HB 87, the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011,”most critics of the bill were already expecting the worst for undocumented migrant workers in the aftermath. However, what was unseen was the state's recruitment of unemployed parolees to remedy an immigrant workers shortage on commercial plantations in the state.

According to reports, Georgia has a manpower shortage of 11,000 positions usually filled by undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Many workers are staying clear of the state fearing they might be detained and deported because of the new immigration law. Latino reaction to the measure is causing plantation owners to find other alternatives for exploitive labor and pressure the governor for a viable solution. In response, Gov. Deal is pushing farmers to hire ex-offenders through a pilot program for unemployed people on parole. Some critics question the system's use of parolees on corporate farms, but also recognize the lack of job prospects for them.

“It's a catch-22 situation because they need employment and they can't get it, primarily because most of the time people who have a criminal conviction are unemployable,” said Washington, D.C.-based attorney Nkechi Taifa to The Final Call.

There are an estimated 15,000 unemployed Georgians on parole and Attorney Taifa said, “It hearkens back to Jim Crow, a very painful era” in the history of America when commercial farmers partnered with the criminal justice system for field labor under a system of peonage.

“It sounds eerily reminiscent of the combination chain gangs and sharecropping, because you are saying there is no other option for you, you have to do this kind of work at a very minimal cost,” said Abel Muhammad, Latino representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.

Divide and conquer

Attorney Taifa also emphasized the potential for social-ethnic friction arising between Black parolees and Latino migrant workers vying for the meager work opportunity.

“I don't like this immigration vs. criminal justice dichotomy where one group is pitted against the other group,” said Attorney Taifa.

In agreement, Mr. Muhammad said both the Black and Latino communities must look beyond what politicians are presenting and ask “who is benefiting from us fighting it out for these poor wages? Who is in the position to ultimately gain?”

They are dividing two poor groups over who will take the least crumbs, he said.

The way to avert a possible struggle between exploited groups of Latinos and Blacks is unifying to do for self and to battle low wages and exploitation of workers, Mr. Muhammad said.

“If we united and said, ‘This is what you going to offer: fair wages for our people, you're going to hire so many people off of parole, so many immigrants.' If we united we'd be able to get more for all of our people, but because we're divided, we're going to get less and they (corporate farmers) will get more,” he said.

Worker rights activists maintain that the whole situation is oppressive noting “less than a living wage” is given to migrants and parolees alike. The workers receive the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and work under arduous labor conditions. However, Gary Black, Georgia commissioner of agriculture praised the program as “a ray of hope,” and is among state officials who are optimistic it will solve the farm worker shortage that the stiff immigration law created.

“We certainly have a large population of people where this opportunity might work and we certainly have need in certain areas of the state for these types of positions,” Mr. Black told the Associated Press.

Conversely Mr. Muhammad sees the arrangement as “deceitful” and “hypocritical” because the work has always been there and lambasted the penal system for neglecting education and skills training to better equip inmates for release. He believes there are other cynical reasons behind the move.

Dubious motivations at work

Supporters of HB87 are celebrating, including the right-wing Republican base that heavily supported the bill and the for-profit prison corporations which stand to benefit from the massive influx of suspected undocumented immigrants through the private prison system, according to writer Matthew Cardinale in an IPS/GIN article posted June 21 on Finalcall.com.

Mr. Cardinale wrote that the lucrative industry expects the “next big growth market” will be immigration detention.

One company mentioned was “Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)” whose revenue for 2009 was $1.7 billion and already in the first quarter of 2011 posted earnings of $40.3 million—or .37 cents per share, on income of $428 million, according to the Nashville Business Journal newspaper.

The federal government pays CCA over $60 per inmate per day to house men at Stewart Detention Center—the largest immigration jail in America, located in Lumpkin, Ga.

“It's really an extension of what they've always been trying to do since slavery—to find a way to get the cheapest labor legal or illegal so they can make the most profit possible,” argued Mr. Muhammad.

The immigration battle

These measures are tied to a contentious national debate centered on state vs. federal handling of undocumented immigrants that devolved into American xenophobic, McCarthy era-like witch hunts, mass incarcerations, deportations and vigilante efforts to control porous borders along the U.S. and Mexico. States like Arizona, Utah, Georgia and soon South Carolina have passed harsh laws that emboldened police raids on Latino communities and companies suspected of hiring undocumented workers. According to the N.Y. Times, at least five states have agreed on an unusual coordinated effort to cancel automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrant parents.

Until recently, federal immigration reform under President Barack Obama slowed down, leaving the door open for Republican state legislators to fill the void. During the presidential elections in 2008, Latino voters, including newly naturalized immigrants, helped President Obama carry several swing states. His campaign promises included halts to workplace raids and backing legislation that facilitates citizenship for undocumented immigrants. However to the disappointment of many Latino supporters, the Obama administration didn't act on comprehensive legislation during its first two years and instead focused on intensifying campaigns of deportation, removing nearly 400,000 immigrants per year in 2009 and 2010.

“Illegal immigration is a complex and troublesome issue, and no state alone can fix it. We will continue to have a broken system until we have a federal solution. In the meantime, states must act to defend their taxpayers,” argued Gov. Deal.

The Georgia law takes effect July 1 and is known as the “show-me-your-papers” scheme by challengers of the law—because it forces citizens to prove they are “legal” using specific documents. The bill is considered one of the toughest immigration laws in the country and has met resistance from civil liberties activists who say it empowers states via local law enforcement to determine citizenship status, which is a federal mandate; thus rendering the law unconstitutional according to opponents. It is also patterned after an Arizona law blocked by the federal government.

The law “gives Georgians a reason to fear that they may be stripped of their constitutional rights simply because of the way they look or sound. Laws that promote this kind of barebones discrimination are out of step with history and cannot be allowed to stand,” said Karen Tumlin, managing attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group.

There is a collective, including the center, that filed a class action lawsuit to stop Georgia from implementing the law and has called on the federal government and the Department of Justice to take a stand against the law, as was done to similar controversial legislation in Arizona.

“In Georgia, we learned from the state laws elsewhere that raised objections from the federal government. We do not wish to go to war with the federal government. We wish to partner with the federal government to enforce the current law of the nation,” said Gov. Deal in a statement.

“We are confident that the court will agree that unconstitutional attempts to drive a wedge between Georgian communities should not be allowed,” countered Ms. Tumlin.

Related news:

America's New Slavery: Black Men in Prison  (FCN, 03-20-2008)

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