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Anti-immigrant laws create labor shortage...
Colorado's scheme to use prison labor

By Eric Ruder | March 9, 2007 | Pages 1 and 2

COLORADO IS considering a new way to ease the shortage of farm labor created by harsh new anti-immigrant laws. Use prisoners instead.

The plan to use prison labor in Colorado's fields is a stark admission of how the profitability of the state's agricultural economy depends on low wages paid to migrant farmworkers.

Prisoners who opt for picking melons and peppers will be paid 60 cents--per day. Farmers, however, aren't thrilled with the deal, because they'll likely end up shelling out more than they have to pay migrant farmworkers to pay the cost of prison guards who'll act as overseers.

Last summer, the state's Democratic-controlled legislature passed 11 anti-immigrant measures that it hailed as the toughest in the country, allowing police to check the immigration status of suspects and denying most non-emergency state benefits to anyone unable to provide proof of citizenship.

In September, a series of raids and roundups convinced many of the state's undocumented residents they had no choice but to flee.

Many legal residents also joined the exodus. "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,'" explained farmer Joe Pisciotta. "This prison labor is not a cure for the immigration problem--it's just a Band-Aid," said Pisciotta.

The draconian anti-immigrant laws are also creating labor shortages in other parts of the economy--for example, building sites in the construction industry.

According to Mark Krikorian of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, the Colorado prisoner-as-farmworker program is "a sign that there are solutions other than importing foreign labor."

Krikorian promotes himself as a defender of native-born workers, whose jobs are "threatened" by migrant workers. But the truth is that immigrant workers take jobs that native-born workers won't--providing a lift to the economy and to wages in general.

"The labor market is not a market of identical people," said Giovanni Peri, an economics professor at the University of California-Davis and the author of a new report by the Public Policy Institute of California. "Workers have different skills, perform different tasks, have different experiences, fill different positions."

Peri's study confirms similar findings by other researchers--that because migrant workers are "more likely to take positions that are more physically demanding and require less knowledge of English or of local business practices," native-born workers are "able to take more specialized jobs...translating into a 4 percent real wage increase for American workers in California between 1990-2004."

Wages also improve when native-born and immigrant workers have the same rights and protections on the job--and stand together in solidarity against the corporations and agribusinesses that seek to drive down pay and conditions for all workers.

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