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Ga. farmer talks immigration with POTUS

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White House meetingA Georgia fruit farmer was among nine business owners and executives who participated Monday in an immigration reform roundtable at the White House with President Obama.

Jason Berry, owner of Blueberry Farms of Georgia in Baxley, Ga., represented agricultural interests at the business huddle.

The immigration bill, which cleared a critical procedural hurdle Monday as the Senate voted to back tighter border security measures, would make simpler the process to hire temporary workers.

Georgia’s agricultural lobby believes those provisions, like a proposed guest worker program, would jolt the local labor market, even as they say the state’s tightening of its own immigration regime in 2011 choked it:

Under the current program, [Charles] Hall [of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association] says Georgia’s small farmers can’t always find workers when they need them.

“The great need will be to maintain a reasonable guest worker program so that workers can come into the U.S. for work and that guest worker program is usable from a small grower’s standpoint as well as a large grower’s standpoint,” he said.

Some smaller farmers have struggled to fill jobs since Georgia passed an immigration crackdown in 2011. It bars companies from hiring undocumented workers.

Joe Cornelius is with the Georgia Blueberry Commission. He says the state law has made an already tight labor market even worse. And that often means you can’t harvest the whole crop.

“Some of the crop goes to waste. Or you take a lower quality product and you receive a lower price for it,” he said in a phone interview.

A read-out of the group’s full exchange was not public as of Tuesday, but the White House released footage of brief comments the president delivered at the roundtable’s close.

“All these business leaders recognize the degree to which immigration is a contributor to growth, a contributor to expansion, a creator of jobs,” he said. “But they also recognize that the immigration system we currently have is broken.”

- James Richardson