With comprehensive immigration reform a real possibility this year, we look at how our broken system affects Colorado—and how things could come into focus in the near future.
One of Colorado’s largest industries has a serious stake in immigration reform.
Sometime this month, when the time is right, David Eckhardt will begin planting crops in the soil he has farmed for the past 30 years. On his 3,600 acres outside of La Salle, he will sow corn, pinto beans, sugar beets, wheat, alfalfa, and onions—making him a part of the nearly $40 billion Colorado agriculture industry. Eckhardt runs the farm with his father and brother and two full-time workers, as well as two other employees who work full-time from March through November. But at various times throughout the growing and harvesting seasons—and especially during the late-July onion harvest—Eckhardt Farms needs to swell its workforce to 120 field workers.
In a town of about 2,000, finding that kind of labor can be next to impossible. Even though he’s tried employing locals, Eckhardt says it just doesn’t work. He’s even tried to give work to his high school–age daughter and her friends, but after weeding 25 acres of pinto beans one summer, they said they wouldn’t choose to do it again. “It’s 100 percent true that I don’t have folks who live in town—even those who are out of work—knocking on my door asking to pop onions,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Eckhardt remembers that when he was a young kid in the 1970s, his father employed the same dependable migrant families—who traveled back and forth between Mexico and the United States depending on the season—year after year to fill the need. Back then, immigration enforcement was very different: The border was not nearly as tightly patrolled, and the penalties for multiple border crossings were much less punitive. Today, because of stricter laws that were enacted in 1996, in particular, Eckhardt must hire a crew leader, who shows up with 30 or so workers. Eckhardt pays the crew leader, who then pays his staff. “I don’t know these guys,” Eckhardt says, “but the onus is on me to make sure the crew leader has paperwork on everyone. Do I know that everyone is legal? No, but if the paperwork looks authentic…let’s just say it’s a struggle to look further when someone shows up with a Colorado driver’s license.”
In an industry that relies on unskilled labor, Eckhardt says, an immigration system that is as rigid and expensive (a seasonal agriculture worker visa, if you can get one, can run anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per worker for an employer) as the United States’ can be a huge problem. “A friend of mine down the road,” Eckhardt says, “had to leave between 10 and 12 percent of his crop in the field last year because he couldn’t find the labor to harvest it. That’s a big problem for a vegetable farmer.”
A big enough problem that Eckhardt and that farmer friend, David Petrocco of Petrocco Farms in Brighton, both took part in Senator Michael Bennet’s Colorado Compact discussions. “I’m not a big fan of amnesty,” Eckhardt says, “but you have these folks here who are productive and will do jobs others won’t. I’m an advocate of a flexible seasonal worker program: There needs to be reform that allows us to supply fresh produce to America.”
76 percent of respondents say they think Colorado employers who hire illegal immigrants should be fined.