Wanted: indispensable, disposable workers

SPRING IS about to spring up here in this high plains farming community just outside the old steel city of Pueblo, and Joe Pisciotta is still not sure whether he’ll have enough of his usual workers to tend his crops.

Ever since the Colorado Legislature declared war on illegal immigrants last year, farmers in this neck of the woods have been worried that the undocumented workers who make up at least half of the area’s farm labor will be too scared to make a return migration.

Two Fridays ago, a carful of Mexican workers showed up at Pisciotta’s office off Highway 50, but it’s not clear whether more will follow. Hedging his bets, Pisciotta, along with a handful of other local farmers, has signed on to a pilot program with the Colorado Corrections Department that could supply them with 10-member crews of low-security female prisoners.


The program has made headlines well beyond Colorado, and not because of the proposal to use prison labor. Rather, it’s the scheme’s easy equivalence between undocumented workers and U.S. citizens who’ve been convicted of crimes and stripped of their rights. Sure, nativists long have tried to persuade us that crossing the border without papers is equivalent to committing a capital crime. But the fact that a group of Colorado farmers has turned to prisoners to meet labor needs says a whole lot about why so many U.S. employers prefer illegal immigrant labor in the first place -- it’s cheap, dependable yet impermanent, and, well, they have no rights either.

Pisciotta says he’s been clear about all this from the start. He’d rather have foreign-born migrant labor than either prisoners or locals. Here along the Front Range, migrant workers tend to come from Mexico and make their seasonal rounds through Colorado, Texas and New Mexico between May and late autumn. Some workers like this arrangement because they can return to their families in the winter. The farmers tend to like it because they don’t have to worry about paying those laborers in the off season.

Like many of the other medium-sized family-owned farms in the area, much of Pisciotta’s outfit is mechanized and unlike, say, citrus farming, it’s not labor intensive. But within a few weeks, he’ll be in need of 12 to 13 workers to hoe the onions that were planted in March and to plant next season’s watermelons.

Mostly, however, he needs labor during the harvest season in the fall. While onions can be picked mechanically, watermelons and pumpkins cannot. “Machines can’t tell if they’re ripe or not,” he said. “And they can’t sort out the best ones at packing time.”

PISCIOTTA AND other participating farmers have received their share of insults from critics, particularly liberals who have accused them of resorting to what they consider slave labor, although the prisoners would be paid and, in the end, the program would cost the farmers more than paying migrants.

Ironically, perhaps, the prison agreement is the brainchild of a local Latina Democratic legislator, Colorado state Rep. Dorothy Butcher, a hard-charging grandmother and retired phone company employee.

Over dinner at Mi Ranchito #2 restaurant in Pueblo, Butcher teared up as she recalled last year’s racially charged debate in Colorado’s General Assembly, which led to tough new legislation granting law enforcement broader powers to check peoples’ immigration status.

“It was very hard not to have your feelings hurt,” she said. “Because they were talking about Mexicans as if they were animals.”

But, at the same time, Butcher refuses to ponder the ethics or long-term significance of replacing those very immigrants who were under attack with convicted criminals.

“It’s about the economy,” she said. “What do you want me to do? Let the farms dry up? This is not fantasyland.”

And, indeed, Butcher is a realist. When the specter of a local farm labor shortage first surfaced, she recalled that, when she was young, the nearby Canon City prison grew its own produce and had a cannery that local farmers shared. She put two and two together and created a pilot program that, if successful, could become a model for the nation.

Even though Pisciotta is still hoping for a few more carloads of familiar old hands to show up at his office in the next few weeks, he’s also confident that the prison labor proposal can work. But not forever. His best-case scenario is that Congress creates a guest worker program “so that I could call up the government to say I need 15 guys from May to October and when I’m done with them, they can take them back.”

But if you stop to think about it, all three of these arrangements -- undocumented workers, prison labor and a guest worker program -- pretty much operate under the same principle. In each case, farmers want indispensable labor to also be disposable. Like the nation at large, they think they can benefit from temporary labor without having to accommodate and integrate permanent laborers. But that’s the very illusion that has gotten us into this immigration mess in the first place.