Immigration: Migrating Views from Rural Colorado

Today, Colorado Confidential is launching a new monthly series examining the lives of Latino immigrants from the geo-perspectives of Denver/Metro, the Eastern Plains and Western Slope. Our subject this month is one that draws strong opinions on both sides of the debate — immigrant labor.

Life on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, with its small town charms and straight talking manner, evokes a bygone era of idealism and simplicity. Except the artifice of a bootstrapping independent frontier spirit belies the very real necessity of tight-knit communal efforts to succeed on land with too few opportunities and even less water.

The hope for the quintessential American Dream is alive and well here on the wind-swept prairie. And it is shared by Americans and Mexicans, alike. The stories told about undocumented agricultural workers here are very different than those repeated by immigration foes, gun-slinging Minutemen, and immigrant advocates. There is a deep appreciation for the back-breaking labor that the largely migrant Hispanic workers provide to farmers and ranchers. There is also a certain level of pragmatism that the state’s $6.5 billion agricultural sector would be crippled should the flow of low-skilled workers be curtailed.

Dawn Thilmany, a professor at Colorado State University and expert in farm labor and immigration, found that the 2002 apex of the drought significantly slowed the growth of farm sector employment in the Intermountain West. Low-skilled workers either moved on to other states or found employment in the service industry, construction, or farm-related businesses, like meatpacking. Consequently, the agricultural labor shortage has placed upward pressures on the sector to raise wages to become more competitive. The current average wage for farm-based labor is now $9.79 per hour, an increase of 44-cents per hour in just one year.

“For the sheer force of [the work] being hyper-seasonal, you tend to have really good wages. And the competition with both the construction industry and, particularly here, the landscaping and ornamental industry, you rarely see minimum wage as binding,” said Thilmany. “It’s not about what the workers make it’s the consistency of being able to piece together enough work. For awhile, we had some anecdotal evidence that they moved up to the resort areas in the winter and then came back to the ag jobs. As construction became more of a year-round industry that pays so well, they didn’t come back out of it.”

Additionally, Thilmany’s research discovered that the average work week for hired farmhands was 40.8 hours, about an hour more than last year. Thus, the estimated annualized wage of farmworkers is $19,173 per year. According to 2002 Census data, more than 2.5 million American families earn less than $18,000 per year. At such a low earnings level, an extra thousand dollars buys a lot of milk and bread. For a Coloradan making ends meet on the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, farmwork would represent an 80 percent increase in annual income.

On the whole, these figures strongly refute the usual refrain by anti-immigration groups, like Defend Colorado Now, that migrant workers take jobs away from Americans. Moreover, dozens of stories were reported in the rural Colorado press lamenting vegetables rotting in fields for lack of workers to bring in the harvest. Further, in largely agricultural Weld County, the unemployment rate is a miserly 3.7 percent. There simply isn’t a large enough pool of native born workers willing to do grueling fieldwork.

While it is true that an over-supply of labor in any sector or community will depress local wages, to blame migrant workers solely for a widely accepted economic principle is neither intellectually honest nor particularly relevant to the issue of immigration reform. It’s just hyperbole. Of which there is an over-abundance in current discussions on the need for serious domestic and foreign policy considerations on our immigrant workforce.

In the next segment of this series, I’ll examine the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” on agricultural workers’ immigration status on the Eastern Plains.

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