Colorado’s inmates-as-farmworkers plan says plenty about our food culture
Last summer, the Colorado General Assembly passed some of the nation’s most rigorous anti-immigrant policy laws. Debate was fierce — but only because some GOP lawmakers fumed that the Democratic-engineered crackdown wasn’t draconian enough.
Essentially, the state’s political elite — backed editorially by The Denver Post — took aim at its low-wage workforce: the people who clean bedpans, prep food in restaurants, harvest vegetables, and perform other “low-value” tasks.
The new code denied most “nonessential” services, including non-emergency health care, to undocumented workers (although it didn’t exempt them from paying sales tax). It also upped identification requirements to get driver’s licenses, and penalized businesses for not confirming workers’ documentation.
While lawmakers congratulated themselves on their foresight — or deplored their inability to enact harsher sanctions — immigrants began to flee Colorado. And now the state’s large-scale farms, which are almost comically reliant on immigrant labor for profitability, are begging the state government to help them find workers for the growing season.
Nativist dogma notwithstanding, it turns out that U.S.-born workers in Colorado aren’t clamoring to spend hours in the hot sun spraying hazardous chemicals or frantically harvesting vegetables from immense rows.
Thus desperate policymakers are turning to another despised population to fix their mess: prison inmates. The state’s Department of Corrections recently announced an experimental program to make “low-risk” inmates available for work as farmhands.
On the Chain Gang
Practically speaking, the idea will likely be a bust. Colorado farms typically hire 10,000 workers per season; analysts expect a shortfall of 4,000 this year. The prison program is voluntary, and inmates will receive 60 cents a day for their labor. (Farmers will pay the state a rate roughly equal to the going wage for farm labor: about $9 per hour.) As the Los Angeles Times editorialized last week, “not too many inmates will do backbreaking field work for 60 cents a day.” In other words, you can’t even get native-born prisoners to do farm work these days.
What, then, will happen? Most likely, the state will quietly ease up enforcement of its severe laws. Farm owners aren’t the only ones lamenting the drying up of a cheap, hardworking, and ready labor supply. Typically, 150,000 migrant workers stream into Colorado each year, the great bulk of them working in construction and food service. Once those industries register their dismay over the laws, policymakers will face even more pressure to let up on immigration.
Indeed, that already may be happening. The Post delivered a wan report last week on the failure to deliver promised savings to the state’s taxpayers. “Colorado’s new law banning state spending on illegal immigrants has cost more than $2 million to enforce — and has saved the state nothing,” the article opens, before quoting several deflated lawmakers and state-agency officials. “The Colorado crackdown,” the Post concludes, “is falling apart.”
Thus the prison-labor idea represents a limp and largely symbolic policy response to the state’s farmworker crisis. But the symbology is powerful — and it provides a stark view into our nation’s relationship to food, agriculture, and physical labor.
In short, Colorado’s brilliant idea suggests that farm labor has become so degraded that the only people willing to do it have to be led to the fields at gunpoint, shackled together: farm labor as punishment.
Food With No Roots
The USDA reports that 30 million people, about a quarter of the U.S. population, lived on farms in 1930. By 2000, that number had dwindled to 3 million people, representing 1 percent of the population. And many of them are “farm operators” who never get their hands in the dirt, instead managing vast labor forces — largely foreign-born.
Every year, U.S. farm owners hire nearly 2 million workers to run machines, spray pesticides, and harvest crops. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, fully 75 percent of them are Mexican nationals — and more than half of them lack legal status.
Over the last century, Americans abandoned their kitchens nearly as quickly as they abandoned farms. In 1929, Americans spent 17 percent of their food budgets away from home. Today, that number approaches 50 percent. As the restaurant industry has boomed, the numbers of immigrants taking low-skilled jobs such as dishwashing have swelled.
Food processing, too, has become largely the province of foreign-born workers. Last December, federal agents raided meatpacking plants owned by Swift in Texas, Utah, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. By rounding up and taking away Swift’s undocumented workers, the federal government shut down nearly all of the meat-processing giant’s beef- and pork-packing capacity.
It also exposed a salient fact: native-born Americans have shunned the dirty work behind what goes on their plates. Perhaps the only truly effective way for nativists to “seal the border” would be to ban eating.
If the latest spasm of nativist feeling has accomplished anything (besides disrupting millions of lives), it has shined a harsh light on our childish relationship to food. People expect it to appear before them ready to eat, at prices unheard of anywhere else in the world, without having to look at anyone who looks, dresses, or sounds different.
In a sense, it’s no wonder the native-born population has largely shunned food-related jobs. Given other choices, who would willingly harvest mile-long rows of tomatoes drenched in chemicals? Or staff an assembly line in one of those wretched pig-slaughter factories — or reheat prefab meals in some vast institutional “kitchen”?
Clearly, our food-production system requires a huge supply of workers with no better options. And that’s precisely the role Mexico plays. Since the early 1980s, when its ruling elite embraced neoliberal economic religion — under heavy pressure from Washington and the International Monetary Fund — its economy has been run mainly to please global investors. These policies have amounted to a direct attack on the old smallholder modes of agricultural production — evicting millions of small-scale farmers from their land. But the promised jobs in the cities never fully materialized, sending hundreds of thousands north each year in search of gainful employment, to the delight of U.S. employers and the despair of nativists.
These brutal trends cannot be reversed by attempting ludicrously to “seal the border” or harassing hardworking immigrants. Rather, the answer lies in revaluing food production on both sides of the border — make it something people choose to do, not because they have no other choices. On a relatively tiny scale, that’s already happening in the U.S. local-food movement, with its booming farmers’ markets and CSAs. The trick for the United States and Mexico will be to stop using agriculture policy as a lever to prop up industrial food — and use it instead to boost local and regional economies.