Leigh Miller for GlobalAtlanta
Georgia firms that employ immigrant labor, such as poultry companies, need Congress to fashion a guest worker program now that the midterm elections are over, said Tommy Bagwell, chairman and CEO of poultry byproducts company American Proteins Inc., who spoke at a recent immigration seminar.

Mr. Bagwell, whose Cumming-based company processes inedible poultry parts for animal feed and biofuel, was a panelist during a seminar on immigration reform organized by Atlanta law firm Reece & Associates. Nearly 200 people attended the seminar.

“Congress better do something about immigration legislation during the lame duck session, or they’re going to wind up with something more liberal than they wanted once the Democrats take control,” Mr. Bagwell told GlobalAtlanta in an interview following the seminar. He was referring to the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which Democrats took the majority of seats in the Congress and are scheduled to take control in January.

Georgia companies like Mr. Bagwell’s need a system to legally hire foreign workers because they cannot find enough Georgia citizens to fill the jobs, he said. His trucking unit, for example, has to hire retired truck drivers, contract haulers and other drivers who will work for American Proteins in addition to their full-time jobs because the company cannot find enough permanent employees.

“There are those who say immigrants are taking jobs away from citizens. That’s just crazy. Unemployment is 4.6 percent. Anybody in business who says they don’t have trouble getting employees, I’d like to meet them,” Mr. Bagwell said.

He said his company is having trouble filling positions that are paying twice the minimum wage and that offer 401-K retirement plans and free family medical insurance. “Everyone in my industry is getting close to $10 an hour, and we still can’t find workers.”

While Mr. Bagwell believes that companies knowingly employing illegal immigrants should be subject to large fines, he does not think companies are solely to blame. Companies in Georgia are timid about the immigration issue, he said, because they are afraid to ask questions about new hires for fear of discrimination lawsuits or other penalties.

“The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is saying we don’t ask enough questions, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says you’re intruding or discriminating if you ask those questions, and then attorneys attack you for violating civil rights. Employers’ hands are tied,” Mr. Bagwell said.

He said that he likes the president’s plan for a guest worker program, but he added that the policy of building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border will not work without a means for legally hiring foreign workers. “The solution is not ‘enforcement only,’ it’s ‘enforcement first’,” he said.

Georgia companies that want a guest worker program, however, must help study the possibilities and implement a system, he said. Companies must prove they are paying competitive wages and that they cannot find citizens to fill the jobs.

He added that companies like his own in North Georgia must be willing to participate in research on the impact of immigrants on the state economy. American Proteins is considering commissioning a study on immigrants’ use of social services in Georgia to assess the true impact on taxpayers.

“Immigrants are getting beat up in North Georgia because taxpayers say they are paying for their food stamps and emergency room care, and they’re overcrowding our schools, and there’s some truth to that. But we have to quantify the costs to solve the issues,” Mr. Bagwell said.

Companies must also educate their foreign workers about dissuading the bad perceptions Georgians may have of immigrants, he added. American Proteins is constantly educating its workers about health care, for example, telling them to go to the doctors approved by their medical insurance plans rather than the hospital emergency room where they might be perceived as uninsured and taking advantage of the system, he said.

He noted that almost every poultry company in Georgia has a health insurance program for its workers, as well as retirement plans and entry-level wages that are more than 50 percent above the minimum wage.

American Proteins is a capital-intensive business and does not have as much invested in labor costs as a poultry processing plant would, he added. Mr. Bagwell’s company has 600 employees, but some poultry processors have 5,000, so the immigrant labor issue is even more important for those employers, he said. Poultry is a $2 billion industry in Georgia.

But Mr. Bagwell says there is a lack of leadership among Georgia companies and politicians to push for policies that would provide the workers firms need. Visas for highly skilled immigrant labor are also “woefully short.” “Somebody needs to stand up. Nobody is leading,” he said.

“I’m one of the top Republican donors in the state, and I’m mad. Now that the election is over, we need to stop the demagoguery and discuss these issues in a clear and truthful manner,” he said, calling for Republicans and Democrats to come to a consensus on a federal immigration bill.

That might be easier following the recent midterm elections, said Daniel Griswold, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, who was also a panelist at the event. Congress will now be better able to work with the president on federal immigration reform, he added.

But Georgia laws cracking down on illegal immigration may have been guided more by perception than reality, Dr. Griswold said. Immigrants’ net cost to the state in 2005 was $61 million, or roughly $100 per Hispanic immigrant, he said. Compared to other states, Georgia was 25th in terms of immigrants’ tax burden last year, but it was 17th a decade ago, he added.

Welfare applications in Georgia have actually decreased over the past several years, and the state’s Kindergarten through 12th grade population is smaller and growing more slowly than the rest of the population, Dr. Griswold said. In the 1970s, Georgia’s K-12 population was 22 percent of the total state population, and this year it is 17 percent, he said.

Other panelists at the event included Daryl Buffenstein, chair of the national immigration practice of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP in Atlanta and Bo Cooper, former general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1999 to 2003 who now heads Paul Hastings immigration practice in Washington.

Contact Adam Cooper at Reece & Associates for more information at (404) 586-2100. Visit www.reeceassociates.com.