Immigration laws may pummel landscapers

It all comes down to apples and oranges – literally and figuratively.

Representatives for Colorado’s mechanized crops say they’ll feel little impact from immigration reform legislation passed during last month’s special session of the Legislature. But the labor-intensive produce and greenhouse/nursery industries are hoping new state laws won’t upset the apple cart.

Signed by Gov. Bill Owens as part of the immigration reform package that has been called the toughest in the nation, Colorado House Bill 1017 requires employers to attest to the legal status of every new hire, beginning Jan. 1, 2007. The state Division of Labor is to conduct random audits, and employers who submit false or fraudulent documents or do not cooperate with an audit face stiff penalties: first offense carries a $5,000 fine and $25,000 for every subsequent offense.

In addition, Owens signed HB 1001, which denies economic incentives to businesses that employ illegal immigrants, and voters will be asked in November to approve eliminating state income tax benefits for such businesses.

In one victory for farmers, HB 1018, which would have required all prospective employees to obtain some form of Colorado identification, was killed in committee. The ski and agriculture industries lobbied hard against the bill because they depend on out-of-state workers to fill their seasonal jobs.

HB 1017 was considered a compromise, because it does not require employers to verify that workers’ documents are genuine. Troy Bredenkamp, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said this verification process would have placed an undue burden on producers.

“It may be okay for the larger employers to take it on, but, particularly if you’re a small or medium-sized employer and you’re presented with all that identification, you’re in no position to verify it,” he said. “We worked very hard with the legislature on this issue, so we’re very pleased with the language in the special session that got into knowing or recognizing false documentation.”

Colorado’s producers still must examine and keep on file documents for no small number of farm workers, as an estimated 46,000 migrants work the state’s fields each year.

According to the agricultural consulting firm World Perspective, up to 40 percent of the country’s estimated 11.5 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants work in agriculture.

The American Farm Bureau estimates that, without continued employment of undocumented workers, farm labor wages could rise to $14.50 an hour, from the current average of $9.50. Although the Colorado Farm Bureau does not track farm labor wages in the state, a study completed by Colorado State University in 2002 showed regional farm wages to be $8.79 an hour at a time when national wages were $8.93.

The AFB predicts such a wage increase will, in large part, create a corresponding boost in the price of some consumer products from 5 percent to 10 percent.

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union disputes this claim.

“(A) seldom-disputed myth is that the prices of goods and services provided by immigrant labor would be much higher if Americans or legal aliens were providing the labor,´ said union president John Stencel in the Greenwood Village-based organization’s April newsletter. “While illegal immigrants are willing to work for lower salaries and are easily exploited, we are naïve to believe that these lower costs of production are passed on to consumers.”

Landscapers, fruit growers at risk

Producers of Colorado’s primary farm commodities of wheat, seed corn and hay aren’t the ones facing the greatest risk from either an increase in wages or a potential labor shortage, according to CSU Cooperative Extension Economist Dawn Thilmany, an expert in farm labor and immigration.

“Landscapers, ornamental horticulture, the nursery stock industry – these people are far more scared, because a very high share of their cost is labor,” she explained.

Thilmany said some may consider landscaping a luxury industry, but it contributes more than a billion dollars to the agricultural economy in Colorado. The state’s greenhouse/nursery industry alone is valued at $15.6 million, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures for 2004.

By comparison, corn contributed $22.2 million to the Colorado economy, with Weld County the fifth largest producer that year. Colorado wheat was a $7.4 million industry, with Weld again the fifth largest producer, while production values for hay stood at $4.4 million for 2004.

“They’ve (the landscaping/nursery industry) actually been far stronger lobbyers than farmers,” Thilmany said. “Their whole business is based on providing labor and services. Farms you can mechanize, but landscaping is all done by hand.”

In the field of standard agriculture, Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee, said custom wheat harvesters are most likely to feel the impact of immigration reform laws.

“These people harvest wheat for hire,´ said Hanavan. “If you don’t own harvest equipment, they bring in the labor to do it. These changes are going to hit them pretty hard.”

With 97 percent of Colorado’s 2.4 million acres of winter wheat already harvested for the year, Hanavan said that industry isn’t yet concerned with the new legislation.

Trent Bushner, president of the Greeley-based Colorado Corn Growers Association, said Colorado’s highly mechanized seed-corn harvest also is well under way.

While these commodities should fare well, Thilmany said the state’s labor-intensive produce industry, which includes Rocky Ford cantaloupes, potatoes from Weld County and the San Luis Valley, and tree fruits and wine grapes from the Western Slope, will face financial difficulties.

“A higher share of their cost is labor. It’s more perishable and must be harvested quickly,´ said Thilmany. “It could be the final straw for producers trying to compete with imports.”

Other vegetable growers can be found sprinkled around the state, including Brighton’s Sakata Farms. Known for its onions, potatoes and broccoli, Sakata Farms reportedly hires upwards of 300 legal Mexican migrants each harvest season.  

President Bob Sakata said some farmers already were experiencing labor shortages by early July and he was concerned the labor pool would shrink even further.

Austin Perez, an American Farm Bureau labor expert, predicted without migrant labor, “We could see up to a third of the fruit and vegetable sector go out of business almost right away.

“Historically,” Perez said, “American farmers haven’t been successful at passing along wage increases to the market. Meanwhile, buyers would look to cheaper and readily available production in countries like Mexico.”

The $27.3 million dairy industry is another labor-intensive Colorado commodity. But Thilmany said this industry should feel little impact from immigration reforms.

“Dairy people hire people year round, so they help their workers get legalized. They’ve done a better job than most industries because they can keep their people working.

Thilmany said Colorado’s livestock industry is not dependent upon immigrant labor. According to USDA 2002 Census of Agriculture figures, both Larimer County and Weld County are cattle- and calf-heavy, followed by hay and wheat production.