The American Dream follows the money trail
January 18, 2007
Park City’s Myles Rademan in the mid-1990s used to tell about tourists on a ski vacation seeking directions to a Mexican restaurant.”They’re all Mexican restaurants,” he replied. “Go into the kitchen of any restaurant, whether it’s American, Italian or Chinese, and the people cooking the food are Mexicans.”I thought of Rademan’s joke recently while watching a televised broadcast narrated by Tom Brokaw about our immigration debate. It was titled “In the Shadow of the American Dream,” and if some thought that title unoriginal, I found it appropriate. Is not the American Dream about betterment, and from whatever angle you look, that’s the debate about the immigration flood: Does it leave us better off?The story was set in the Colorado Rockies, in a valley where the economic shadow of Aspen falls for 80 miles, overlapping a similarly immense shadow from Vail. These communities, two of our nation’s best-known mountain resorts, are among the wealthiest in the world. It’s probably not incidental that the immigration flood arrived here far sooner than in most interior locations. Money was to be made – by the immigrants, by their employers – and by the consumers.Of course, it’s not usually explained that way. Mostly, as in Brokaw’s program, it’s explained simplistically that Americans won’t do the work, not even at $12 to $14 an hour, the starting wage for construction laborers in these high-paying, high-cost resort valleys.Construction of vacation and retirement homes has now trumped pure tourism as the strongest economic driver, and the real estate markets have burgeoned. But the foundation is tolerably cheap labor. The point was made bluntly by the construction company owner in Brokaw’s program. If not for immigrant labor – including, probably, illegal immigrants, he seemed to say – how would this triumphant prosperity continue?But who prospers, and exactly how much? That’s where Brokaw’s story fell short. It did not follow the money trail, which is where most reporting comes up empty. We end up with clichés, little better than the myths that Brokaw’s publicists promised the show would dispel. The money trail I can detect from these resort valleys is mostly anecdotal: Of construction contractors grown rich, living in big, big houses – their Latino laborers all legal, they insist (didn’t you see the wink, insiders tell me); of roofing bosses able to retire in their early 50s; of burgeoning vacation homes sprawling endlessly. Ah, this America is a good place, they will tell you, where hardworking men and women can pull themselves up by the bootstraps.They may not even wink. They may actually believe it’s all the result of hard work and smarts. Lost is the foundation for wealth: cheap labor.In our national debate about immigration we have relied upon facts that stop short of truth. You can’t find good labor for $14 an hour? Well, then can you at $20 an hour? It seems frightfully high – but then so are the costs of these homes they help build for the titans of American entertainment and industry – homes that customers are buying with cash.After the TV broadcast, anti-immigration activist Frosty Woolridge grazed the truth in an op-ed in The Aspen Times: “With unending growth,” he wrote, “21st century robber barons enjoy unending profits.”We have a wink-wink economy. In our abundance, honesty is our greatest shortage, and it’s not just the über-rich. A case in point has to do with the federal crackdown on Swift, the nation’s third-largest meatpacking company. At one plant, in Greeley, Colo., 10 percent of the work force was detained. Swift officials professed innocence. It’s hard to believe. The industry long ago moved to rural areas to break the unions. This is the logical consequence.Who benefits? Swift’s chairman of the board lives in a big house at a ski resort, owns several other resorts of the West, and has a major hockey team. But why pick on him? Good cuts of meat are cheap, and I eat them. So do you, probably. Isn’t that part of the American Dream, the better life, not having to eat liver and onions?Last winter I had work done to my heating system. The contractor took three months to get there, and when he did, charged me $1,000 for a day’s work. In the meantime, I had met an immigrant – illegal or not, I’m not sure – who did such work. I thought at the time I could get the work done for $500 or $600.You bet I was tempted.Allen Best grew up in a meatpacking town and now publishes Mountain Town News, which focuses on mountain resort valleys of the North American West. He can be reached at email@example.com.