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Backlash backfires

Colorado's harsh anti-immigrant laws have resulted in labor shortages in farming and construction.

March 02, 2007

IN THE 2004 SATIRICAL film "A Day Without a Mexican," California wakes up to discover that its Latinos have mysteriously vanished, and a society deeply reliant on migrant labor starts to crumble. Life is imitating art in Colorado. After passing what might be the nation's toughest anti-immigrant laws, the state is having its beleaguered day with fewer immigrants.

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.

Immigrants are fleeing Colorado because of harsh laws passed during a special session of the Legislature last summer that require state identification for government services and allow police to check suspects' immigration status. The ID laws have raised the ire even of many native-born people, who complain about hassles for those trying to get a driver's license.

If chasing away immigrants has caused problems in Colorado, imagine the economic chaos it would bring to California, where immigrants make up about a third of the workforce and the agriculture industry dwarfs Colorado's. 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.

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.

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