Onion Growers Seek INS AgreementAP , Associated Press
May. 29, 1998 1:57 AM ET
STATESBORO, Ga. (AP) _ Vidalia onion growers plan to meet next month in an attempt to finalize an agreement to rid their fields of illegal migrant workers.
But concerns have risen over whether the deal between the farmers and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services will include protection for the migrant workers.
The INS already has agreed to amnesty to the illegal workers now harvesting the estimated $90 million Vidalia onion crop in 19 south Georgia counties.
The plan under consideration requires the onion growers to obey laws governing the use of alien migrant workers, open their business records to immigration authorities and provide the names of labor contractors who provide them with migrant workers.
Bruce Goldstein of the Farmworker Justice Fund said Thursday the only two provisions in the initial INS proposal that would have provided any protections to workers were deleted in the proposed agreement presented to growers on May 19.
One provision would have required all growers, by next season, to provide adequate housing for each migrant worker employed. The other would have required the growers to act as employers, assuming legal responsibility for the workers, instead of insisting that such responsibility be borne by migrant labor contractors.
INS spokesman Bill Castro said the two provisions were dropped by the INS after the growers expressed reservations about the initial proposed agreement.
``They tried to tailor it to what they felt the farmers wanted,'' he said.
W.J. Grimes, who heads the Vidalia Onion Council, which represents nearly all of the 215 Vidalia onion growers in south Georgia, said farmers did not ask to have the provisions deleted. The INS did it on its own, he said.
``We haven't accepted this proposal. We're going to meet to see what we want to do,'' Grimes said.
The original proposal presented on May 14 was ``hastily drawn,'' Grimes said. INS presented the new proposal at a meeting five days later, he said.
``They've positioned themselves exactly where they want to be,'' said Goldstein, referring to the growers. ``They're making money on a premium crop and the workers are getting nothing.''
Goldstein said growers gained a political benefit from the INS sweeps two weeks ago.
The growers, who have gained the support of U.S. Reps. Jack Kingston, Saxby Chambliss and Sanford Bishop, as well as Georgia's U.S. Sens. Paul Coverdell and Max Cleland, have said there is a shortage of labor and that they are being unfairly punished for using workers they are unable to identify as illegal migrants.
The INS halted the raids after less than a week, under a hastily negotiated truce with onion farmers who said their harvest would be ruined without the 4,000 to 5,000 Mexicans they hire each season.
Castro said the growers are still studying the latest INS proposal and the agency is awaiting their response before resuming negotiations. There is no deadline for the growers to respond, he said.
Grimes said he does not expect many changes in the proposal.
``At our last meeting, we were supposed to get together how we liked the proposal and what sort of changes we might want,'' Grimes said. ``But we're really concentrating now on trying to get the crop out.''
He said the finalized agreement probably would not significantly change the way farmers hire workers, but it may make them more conscientious about following rules already in place.
``We want to make sure we have legal workers,'' Grimes said. ``But we must have help out of Washington.''