Using Inmates as Farm Labor

March 2 2007, 1:09 PM
The proposal to use Colorado inmates for farm labor to substitute for the smaller pool of immigrant labor resulting from Colorado's new immigration laws, considered the harshest in the nation, have garnered a lot of talk. David Haryasani provides his tongue-in-cheek, humorous take in the Denver Post. The Denver Post editors think it's a good proposal. I think the LA Times gets it just right. The proposal shows how Colorado's new immigration laws have backfired.
With no one left to pick them, crops are rotting in the fields, and the construction industry and other businesses that rely on low-skilled labor are experiencing a worker shortage. The situation is so bad for the state's growers that officials plan to send prison inmates out to harvest crops. How very 19th century. The Rocky Mountain blues are also demonstrating that, contrary to nativist rhetoric, there really are jobs that Americans won't do. In Pueblo, Colo., desperate farmers are offering up to $9.60 an hour for pickers -- well in excess of the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour and more than they have paid migrants in the past -- but there are few takers. Turning prisoners into farmers is no solution. People aren't sentenced to hard labor anymore, so only volunteers are available for prison work programs. And not too many inmates will do backbreaking field work for 60 cents a day -- the going rate for prisoners under Colorado's pilot program.
Bad things happen when laws are enacted out of hysteria and public fear. There was a clamoring from the right, spurred on by Colorado's Tom Tancredo and radio hosts like Peter Boyles, coupled with lots of bleating about undocumented immigrants being the cause of Colorado's economic woes. As the Times says,
Colorado is learning a painful lesson about the foolishness of a piecemeal, state-by-state response to illegal immigration and about the economic effect of a strictly punitive approach. The only solution with a chance of working is comprehensive federal legislation that would document immigrants already in this country as guest workers and provide them with a path to citizenship, as well as tightening border security. Election-year politics torpedoed President Bush's efforts to pass such reforms last year. To see the result of the opposite approach, look no further than Pueblo.
Now the Denver Post wants to worry about security if inmates are substituted for immgrants in the field. We wouldn't have that problem if we had just let the immigrants do the jobs they came here to do, that no one else seems to want. Indentured servitude is the not the answer. The inmates shouldn't stand for it, and neither should we.