DENVER — Ever since passing what its Legislature promoted as the nation's toughest laws against illegal immigration last summer, Colorado has struggled with a labor shortage as migrants fled the state. This week, officials announced a novel solution: Use convicts as farmworkers.
The Department of Corrections hopes to launch a pilot program this month -- thought to be the first of its kind -- that would contract with more than a dozen farms to provide inmates who will pick melons, onions and peppers.
Crops were left to spoil in the fields after the passage of legislation that required state identification to get government services and allowed police to check suspects' immigration status.
"The reason this [program] started is to make sure the agricultural industry wouldn't go out of business," state Rep. Dorothy Butcher said. Her district includes Pueblo, near the farmland where the inmates will work.
Prisoners who are a low security risk may choose to work in the fields, earning 60 cents a day. They also are eligible for small bonuses.
The inmates will be watched by prison guards, who will be paid by the farms. The cost is subject to negotiation, but farmers say they expect to pay more for the inmate labor and its associated costs than for their traditional workers.
Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate said they were stunned by the proposal.
"If they can't get slaves from Mexico, they want them from the jails," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors restrictions on immigration.
Ricardo Martinez of the Denver immigrant rights group Padres Unidos asked: "Are we going to pull in inmates to work in the service industry too? You won't have enough inmates -- unless you start importing them from Texas."
Farmers said they weren't happy with the solution, but their livelihoods are on the verge of collapse.
"This prison labor is not a cure for the immigration problem; it's just a Band-Aid," farmer Joe Pisciotta said.
He said he needed to be sure he would have enough workers for the harvest this fall before he planted watermelons, onions and pumpkins on his 700-acre farm in Avondale. But he's not thrilled with the idea of criminals working his fields.
"I've got young kids," he said. "It's something I've got to think about."
Pisciotta said he hoped the program highlighted what he viewed as the absurdity of Colorado's position -- dependent on immigrant labor but trying to chase migrants away. He said the people leaving were not just those who entered the country illegally.
"Some of them have said, 'We think our paperwork is in order, but how about if it's not and we get caught on a glitch,' " he said.
Ever since the Democratic-controlled Legislature took a tough turn on immigration, the new requirements have worried those in the country legally and illegally.
Immigrant advocates allege that some sheriffs have authorized deputies to pull over Latino drivers on supposed speeding violations and ask them whether they are in the country legally.
And more stringent requirements put into effect last year made it harder to get a driver's license. Numerous U.S. citizens, including the daughter of a state legislator, were refused licenses because they lacked proper proof of citizenship. A judge has since ruled that the requirements must be revised.
Social service agencies say they have discovered few illegal immigrants on public assistance since the laws were passed.
Immigrant and business groups agree that the heated rhetoric has led to an exodus of Latinos -- though no one is sure how many. Businesses including carwashes and construction firms have complained of a worker shortage.
"It's like, 'Don't go visit that house, there's a guy with a shotgun at the door,' " said state Rep. Rafael Gallegos, who represents a heavily Latino agricultural district in south-central Colorado. He voted against most of the legislation.
Farmers on Monday met with state officials at the Capitol here to discuss using inmate labor. The Department of Corrections expects to begin sending about 100 prisoners to work on farms near Pueblo this month.
Some of the state's 22,000 prisoners have agricultural experience. Convicts can participate in programs on prison grounds to break wild horses and grow crops. About 700 inmates work in other jobs outside prison, such as on fire crews.
Ari Zavaras, the executive director of the Department of Corrections, said he knew of no other prison system in the nation using convicts to fill agricultural labor shortages.
In California, where growers also have complained about a lack of workers, inmates have not labored in private fields since the 1940s. Prisoners then were used as farmhands while laborers were fighting in World War II, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections.
"The idea [of using prisoners on farms] has been floated before, but these are not unskilled jobs. They're jobs that require a lot of training and supervision," said David Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "It doesn't seem like a very practical alternative."
Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Colorado prison experiment was "a sign that there are solutions other than importing foreign labor."
He said "ultimately they're going to have to improve the wages and working conditions" to attract legal workers, as well as to mechanize parts of their farming operations.
Colorado's experience shows that hard-line measures have an effect on illegal immigrants, Krikorian added, noting that arrests had dropped along the U.S.-Mexico border since security was increased last year.
"We're seeing enforcement work, not just in Colorado," he said, "but all over the country."