LESLIE, Ga. — It’s 3:25 p.m. in a dusty cucumber field in south Georgia. A knot of criminal offenders who spent seven hours in the sun harvesting buckets of vegetables by hand have decided they’re calling it quits – exactly as crew leader Benito Mendez predicted in the morning.
Unless the cucumbers come off the vine soon, they will become engorged with seeds, making them unsellable. Mendez’s crew of Mexican and Guatemalan workers will keep harvesting until 6 p.m., maybe longer. Not so for the men participating in a new state-run program aimed at replacing the Latino migrants Georgia farmers say they’ve lost to a new immigration crackdown with unemployed probationers.
“Tired. The heat,” said 33-year-old Tavares Jones, who left early and was walking down a dirt road toward a ride home. He promised Mendez he’d return the next morning. “It’s hard work out here.”
Mendez urged another man to stay. “I need you today,” he said. “These cucumbers not going to wait until tomorrow.”
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal started the experiment after farmers publicly complained they couldn’t find enough workers to harvest labor-intensive crops such as cucumbers and berries because Latino workers – including many illegal immigrants – refused to show up, even when offered one-time or weekly bonuses. One crew who previously worked for Mendez told him they wouldn’t come to Georgia for fear of risking deportation.
Farmers told state authorities in an unscientific survey that they had more than 11,000 unfilled agriculture jobs, although it’s not clear how that compares to prior years or whether the shortage can be blamed on the new law.
For more than a week, the state’s probation officers have encouraged their unemployed offenders to consider taking field jobs. While most offenders are required to work while on probation, statistics show they have a hard time finding jobs. Georgia’s unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent, but correction officials say among the state’s 103,000 probationers, it’s about 15 percent. Still, offenders can turn down jobs they consider unsuitable, and harvesting is physically demanding.