Colorado Farm Bureau officials discuss Utah immigration program |

Colorado Farm Bureau officials discuss Utah immigration program

JIM RYDBOM / jrydbom@greeleytribune.comWorkers pick cabbage in a field in Weld County during a recent harvest season. Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar would like to see Colorado adopt a program that will allow undocumented immigrants to work legally in the state for a short period of time.

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State agriculture officials and Colorado Farm Bureau members have come to one mutual understanding on immigration: It’s a difficult issue.

In his comments during Monday’s general session of the three-day Colorado Farm Bureau Mid-Summer Meeting, Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar told the crowd in the Clarion Hotel’s convention center in downtown Greeley that he wanted Colorado to look into following Utah’s adoption of a program that would allow unauthorized foreigners to work legally in the state.

But the Colorado Farm Bureau’s 14-person specialty agriculture committee that discussed immigration that afternoon and into Tuesday morning concluded the state needs to hold tight on developing any new laws.

Under one of the bills approved in Utah in March, the state would issue a two-year work permit to illegal immigrants who could prove they had been living and working in the state. To qualify, immigrants would have to pass a criminal background check and pay fines of up to $2,500, among other requirements.

The bill, which was the first move by a state to extend legal recognition to illegal immigrant laborers, gives the state’s governor until 2013 to negotiate with federal immigration authorities for a waiver for the guest worker program. Under federal law, it is a violation for an employer to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant.

“Something like this could do a lot of great things. Colorado is about to get huge expansions in its agriculture industry,” Salazar said, mentioning the Leprino plant in Greeley that is set to begin operations later this year. “We don’t have the legal workforce here in the state to meet that demand.”

“The H-2A program can’t meet that demand,” Salazar further noted, referring to the Colorado’s temporary agricultural visa that’s reserved for immigrants who are here to perform seasonal agricultural labor. “We need a real solution.”

However, Bruce Talbott, the specialty agriculture committee’s chairman from Palisade, said in his final report Tuesday it’s not the state’s issue to deal with.

“It’s an extremely complex issue,” Talbott said. “Immigration is the responsibility of the federal government, but they’re not really moving on it. Therefore, states are putting laws in place, and as we’ve seen, it can cause more problems.”

Talbott said one of his concerns with adopting a state law like Utah’s is the possibility of an influx of illegal immigrants from other states.

“Utah could really get bogged down with illegal immigrants,” Talbott said in an interview after presenting his overview of the committee’s discussions Tuesday morning. “If all they have to do is pay a fine and make up some proof of previously working in the state, immigrants would flock there.”

At the same time, Talbott acknowledged that the Utah law is good in that it would keep families together, particularly those in which children born in the U.S. are legal citizens but their parents are not.

He also agreed with Salazar that Colorado needs the increase in its legal workforce that could result from a law like Utah’s.

Talbott said his subcommittee was informed this week of issues in other states where immigration laws are tighter and agriculture production was negatively affected by the resulting insufficient workforce.

In Michigan, asparagus producers reportedly were unable to harvest crops this year because of a labor shortage, even after advertising those job openings in Detroit, where the unemployment rate is about 15 percent.

In Georgia, where Salazar says strict immigration policies are in place and workers have fled the state because of that, about $1 billion in fruits and vegetables that are labor intensive are expected to be lost because of a shortage of workers.

According to Salazar, the governor of Georgia agreed to use state prisoners to work those fields, but the inmates walked off the job after only two hours because the work was too hard.

While Talbott and others agree the labor is needed in Colorado, the head of the specialty agriculture committee pointed out during his presentation Tuesday that illegal residents right now are costing the state of Colorado more than $1.2 billion annually.

“It’s such a tough issue,” Talbott said. “And we don’t want to be the guinea pig. We don’t want the state to put forth any new policy that could possibly make things worse.

“I’d rather be here, talking about the mistakes in Georgia, rather than people in Georgia talking about the mistakes we’re making here in Colorado.”

With its package, Utah made a sharp break with the hard-line trend in state immigration legislation that Arizona has led. However, the Utah law has been a lightning rod of controversy within the state’s Republican Party, pitting traditionally conservative groups against an energetic tea party movement that has pressured lawmakers to seek tough enforcement on illegal immigration.

Portions of the bill are tied up in federal court, with a hearing scheduled for Sept. 2.

“It’s a tough issue, that’s for sure,” said Les Hardesty, a local farmer who runs a 600-cattle dairy operation near Greeley. “But something needs to be done.”

As Hardesty explained, Colorado’s current H-2A Visa doesn’t help the dairy industry because dairy work is not considered seasonal labor.

“Having a two- or three-year work permit option would be very beneficial for us,” he said of the dairy industry. “However, in my humble opinion, it needs to be something that’s nationwide. It’s fine if states want to take some initiative, but we need to have everyone on a level playing field.

“Whatever the solution may be, we definitely need more legal workers.”

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