By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Ever since Colorado passed tough immigration laws last year, farmers have worried that the immigrant laborers they depend on to plant and harvest their crops will not show up in the fields this season. So, a state legislator has proposed a novel idea: Send in the prisoners.
In a pilot program officials hope to roll out before the May planting season, minimum-security prison inmates will work five farms in southeastern Colorado to fill in for migrant workers. The inmates will earn the state's standard prison pay of 60 cents per day.
Critics from every side of the immigration debate have called Colorado's plan a deeply flawed stopgap solution to the chronic labor shortage, which afflicts agriculture from New York's apple orchards to Oregon's Christmas tree farms.
"One generation ago here in Oregon, the crops were picked by high school kids," said Gordon Lafer, associate professor of political science and labor studies at the University of Oregon. Now, he said, the inmate program tells workers, "for all those industries that couldn't move to Mexico or China, we're going to bring those conditions to you."
"The basic problem is that the pay is so low that it's difficult for people to accept those jobs," said Charles Tafoya, executive director of Rocky Mountain Service, Employment, Redevelopment, a job training agency in Denver. "If farm work paid a livable wage like any other industry, they wouldn't have that problem."
Those who want to restrict immigration tend to agree that farm wages are too low.
"Like illegal immigration, using inmate labor is simply forestalling or preventing the ultimate solution to this problem, which is, a) to let wages and benefits rise, and, b) at the same time, to mechanize," said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports more restrictions on immigration.
"If the goal of illegal immigration is to allow a tiny number of undercapitalized farms to continue to eke out a living for another few years, then boy, that's a strange national policy," he added.
The inmate program has precedents. In Arizona, about 60 prisoners worked in watermelon fields last year, filling in for migrant workers. Iowa legislators have expressed interest in copying Colorado's program.
Colorado's plan calls for supervised teams to plant, weed and harvest on farms in Pueblo County. Farmers will contract with the state for the labor, paying the cost of transportation and guards.
State Rep. Dorothy Butcher (D-Pueblo) is the architect of the prisoner program. She also voted for Colorado's new immigration laws, which require residents to prove they are in the country legally to receive benefits such as in-state tuition or business licenses. "A lot of [immigrants] have felt threatened, and aren't coming," Butcher said. "We can't let the agriculture business just dry up."
About 78 percent of the nation's 1.8 million agricultural workers are immigrants, according to Department of Labor statistics. The majority are in the country illegally.
"Thousands of immigrants and their families have left Colorado in the past year," Julien Ross, coordinator of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said. Some of those are legal immigrants who do not understand the law and fear they could be deported for just a speeding ticket or other minor offense, Tafoya said.
Phil Prutch, one of the Colorado farmers negotiating with the state to use convict labor on his 250 acres of sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes and melons, said he pays workers all he can afford -- $6.85 an hour, or Colorado's minimum wage. He said he needs workers to fill 10 to 20 jobs this season, and does not expect immigrants to fill them all.
But even he is lukewarm to the idea of replacing immigrant labor with convicts.
"It's not a fix," Prutch said. "The people we hire -- most people don't think much of them, but they're skilled labor. A person who doesn't know what they're doing can ruin you in a day."
Ari Zavarasl, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, said inmates are already used to tame wild horses, build furniture and work in a dairy, and should be able to adapt to farm work.
"They will be learning some work skills," Zavaras said. "One could raise the question of, 'How marketable is working in the fields?' But you'd be surprised how many inmates we have who've never held a job. And if we can teach them they have to be up, ready to go for a day's work, that's a step in the right direction."
Immigrant advocates and farmers say agriculture jobs would be filled if Congress passed a guest-worker program, such as the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act. AgJobs, as the bill is known, would allow undocumented farmworkers already in the U.S. to become legal permanent residents.
"The federal government needs to get off their heinies and get something done," Prutch said.