By Eric Brown
A recent widespread push in Colorado for immigration reform has been welcomed with open arms from a $1.5-billion agriculture industry in Weld County that’s battled existing regulations as much as or more than any other.
Earlier this month, a diverse and bipartisan group revealed the “Colorado Compact” — an effort spearheaded by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., aimed at getting the ball rolling on discussions for federal immigration reform.
Colorado — with an estimated 1800,000 undocumented immigrants — is now the fourth state to put forth such a document.
Because of that push, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar and others, including Bennet, believe “serious discussions” on immigration reform could begin in Washington as early as the first three months of 2013, Salazar said in a phone interview Monday.
“It’s certainly time,” according to LaSalle-area farmer Dave Eckhardt, who took part in some of the approximately 200 meetings during the past year that helped in piecing together the Colorado Compact.
For years, Weld’s agricultural producers, like many others nationally, have lost workers to the better-paying jobs of the oil and gas field, while also struggling to find local residents willing to do agriculture’s physical labor.
And many have given up on the federal government’s existing H-2A Visa seasonal guest-worker program — describing it as too expensive with too many regulations, and not helpful to certain sectors of agriculture that don’t need seasonal work, like the dairy industry, which needs workers year-round.
Some Weld County producers estimate that initial costs alone in bringing a foreign worker here through the H-2A program is about $2,000-$3,000 per person.
Much to the delight of local producers, the Colorado Compact specifically calls for an improved worker-visa system.
Vegetable growers, like Dave Petrocco — who farms all over Weld County, from Brighton to Greeley — have been hit hard in recent years due to labor shortages.
While some crops, like corn and wheat, are harvested with machinery, vegetables require hand picking, along with other physical duties needed during the growing process.
Because Petrocco couldn’t find enough workers during the fall of 2011, about 10 percent of his crops were left in the fields unharvested when winter rolled around — about a $150,000 loss, he estimates. Petrocco said he fared better this past fall, mainly because the abnormally dry and mild weather gave him and his workers more time in the fall to get everything harvested.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges we face, if not the biggest challenge,” said Petrocco, who, like Eckhardt, took part in discussions that helped steer the Colorado Compact.
Local producers say they’d like to offer wages that are more competitive with the oil and gas industry — Petrocco said he pays about $8 per hour wages for field workers — but added that the profit margins in vegetable and milk production don’t allow it.
Signers of the Colorado Compact span faith organizations, law enforcement agencies, the business community, immigrant-rights advocates and institutions of higher education, as well as agricultural interests. It even came with the support of Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who challenged Bennet for his Senate seat in 2010.
Compact signers say, even though the document is not legally binding, it sends a message that Colorado wants meaningful immigration reform.
The Colorado Compact follows the creation of similar guiding-principle documents in Utah, Indiana and Idaho.
Utah officials have said the result of The Utah Compact — unveiled in November 2010 — allowed the Utah Legislature to pass a guest-worker law, which is set to go into effect in July 2013, and would grant work permits to illegal immigrants in the state after they paid fines and passed background checks.
Salazar, along with agriculture commissioners from all other 49 states, put their support behind the Utah Compact last year — because ag producers everywhere have battled worker shortages in recent years.
This past fall, the Western Growers Association in California — an organization in the most ag-productive state in the U.S. — reported a 20 percent drop in laborers.
The problem has been even worse in states that have tightened their belts on immigration, like Georgia and Alabama, where billions in agricultural production were lost in 2011.
“It’s easily one the biggest issues facing agriculture,” said Bill Hammerich, CEO with the Greeley-based Colorado Livestock Association, who also took part in Colorado Compact talks. “We’ve been waiting a long time for healthy discussions on immigration reform ... and it seems like we’re finally taking steps in the right direction.”