Colorado farmers and others squeezed by a labor shortage will be pinched even more by the death of President George W. Bush's immigration proposal in the Senate, business leaders said Thursday.
"Our labor supply is going to continue to diminish," said Mike Gilsdorf, leader of Colorado Employers for Immigration Reform, or COEIR. "I can see a lot of overtime expenses."
New state immigration laws that some business owners blame for frightening off legal immigrant workers have prompted farmers to shift to less labor-intensive crops, state Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp said. Because some of those crops, like corn, are less valuable, Colorado's agricultural output is expected to drop this year, Stulp said.
"There are still producers taking a risk and putting in crops, hoping to get laborers in time for the late summer, fall harvest," Stulp said.
He and Gilsdorf, chief executive officer of Arapahoe Acres Nursery in suburban Littleton, spoke at a COEIR forum.
Gilsdorf said his business is turning down work and paying workers overtime because he can't find enough help. Gilsdorf said the labor shortage eventually will affect how much he can buy from suppliers.
New laws that gave the state a reputation as tough on illegal immigration have prompted even some legal immigrant workers to stay away, perhaps fearing they will be harassed or because they have undocumented relatives, Stulp said after the forum.
Census data show foreign-born workers filled roughly one-fourth of Colorado's agriculture, cleaning and maintenance, and construction jobs in 2000.
Immigrants held 267,576 jobs overall, according to 2000 data. That tops the 89,000 Coloradans seeking work in May, suggesting that the unemployed would not be able to pick up the slack if immigrant labor disappeared, private economist Tucker Hart Adams said.
"Immigrant workers benefit all of us by keeping the economy growing and healthy," she said.
Adams said by not fixing the current immigration system, the United States is inviting major labor shortages and an even worse recession than the one she is predicting now.
Fewer immigrant workers could mean less production and money circulating in the economy, plus other ripple effects, Adams said.
"We get many things cheaper because they were made in other countries or because of immigrant labor. That gives us additional money to spend on other things that create new jobs," she said.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, a vocal opponent of illegal immigration, cheered the death of the immigration plan.
"The people's voices are still being heard in this place," said Tancredo, R-Colo.
He advocates securing national borders and enforcing prohibitions on hiring illegal immigrants, who have been blamed by opponents for lowering wages and stressing health care systems.
Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat who helped craft the immigration bill, compared the immigration debate with other civil rights struggles in the U.S.
He said the bill would have addressed the need to fix the nation's porous borders, served employers and given 12 million illegal immigrants a path to legal status.
"Today we have a system of chaos and disorder. Those who killed the legislation today, for whatever reason, have compromised the national security of the United States," he said.
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