Do immigrants help or harm the economy? |

Do immigrants help or harm the economy?

Katie Clary
Aspen Times Writer

Twenty years ago, a peek into just about any Aspen restaurant’s kitchen would likely reveal a few long-haired ski bum/chefs and dishwashers. Today, the same peek would reveal a largely Hispanic work force, communicating mostly in Spanish.

The modern-day face of Aspen’s work force points to a larger community controversy about immigration, especially the role of Hispanic immigrant workers. Some Aspenites believe foreigners are stealing their jobs; others feel immigrants, particularly Latino immigrantes, are a necessary part of the work force.

And many say without Hispanic employees ” working legally and illegally ” the valley would simply stand still.

“If they were all magically transported over the border overnight, you’d have a hard time getting your breakfast in the morning,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis.

Likewise, a Latino named Jaime said the clock would stop after just one day in Aspen without undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants working as dishwashers and cooks, housekeepers and nannies, gardeners and construction workers.

But Gallup’s latest poll finds only 14 percent of Americans want to see immigration increased, and 33 percent want present levels maintained. By contrast, 49 percent of Americans polled want immigration decreased.

During what the Christian Science Monitor calls “historically high levels of immigration,” recent economic studies rekindle debate on immigrants’ impact to jobs and the economy in general.

Latino immigrants do the jobs native workers won’t, but that “doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” said Steven Camarota, a political scientist at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates stricter limits on immigration.

“You have to finish that sentence with, ‘What we as employers want to pay,'” he said, adding that “undesirable” jobs might be sought by nonimmigrants for $15 an hour, rather than $6.

Camarota used lettuce crops to illustrate what he meant: A farmer has two options for harvesting. He can hire five laborers to pick the lettuce by hand, for a low wage, or one worker with a machine for a higher wage.

The result? “If the labor is really cheap, then you just leave your machine in the barn to rust,” Camarota said. In similar circumstances, “you might get a cheaper nanny” but “you’re making the poor poorer,” he said.

For the Roaring Fork Valley and elsewhere, this means the workers most affected are those without a college education. Their wages in particular are affected by the plenitude of cheap, uneducated labor.

But Joel Fetzer, a Pepperdine University political science professor, counters these recent findings, calling one study “bogus.”

Fetzer argues that other studies show that even undocumented workers have little or no overall effect on wages or unemployment rates of citizens and documented workers.

“I’d argue that the biggest argument is that on balance, [immigrants] help the U.S. economically and culturally,” he said in an e-mail.

Fetzer, who has written several books about immigration, said people crossing U.S. borders bring fluency in Spanish and Chinese, helping us stay competitive in a global economy, and market to the largest groups of international consumers in the world.

“Besides, if we don’t allow immigrants to come here to do the work, multinational corporations will simply move our jobs overseas (e.g., to India),” he said, adding that it’s better for the economy as a whole, and people with every kind of job, to have immigrants work here and consume American products and services.

Beyond that, he said most workers from south of the Rio Grande come to earn enough money to support their families back home, and “feeding one’s children should not be a crime.”

Outside the academic arguments, or perhaps in the middle of them, Aspen illustrates the reality of the changing face of the American work force. As a resort, Aspen provides an unusually high number of jobs for a town with only about 6,000 permanent residents, attracting employees from a diverse variety of countries such as Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Great Britain. But arguably, hires from Latin American countries dominate the employment scene.

The hotel industry is a prime example. Hispanics comprise 50 percent of the St. Regis Aspen’s 300 or so employees, said director of human resources Ann Fitzgerald.

“They’re a huge part of the work force,” she said.

In the seven years she has lived in the valley, Fitzgerald said Latinos have been a staple in Aspen’s work force.

The change in demographics from overeducated ski bum to undereducated undocumented immigrant became noticeable in the late 1980s.

This migration continues to concern Mike McGarry, a valley maintenance worker and longtime member of CAIR, the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform.

Worried about overpopulation and what he calls little or “no assimilation” from these Latin American newcomers, McGarry said he actively petitions the U.S. government to reduce immigration levels. But he is frustrated by what he considers politicians’ deaf ear to the issue.

“We’re ready to start throwing tables and chairs and kicking some butt,” in order to be heard, he said.

On illegal immigration, he said: “We want these guys repatriated.”

Sheriff Braudis, who calls himself a realist, doesn’t think McGarry’s point of view is viable under current circumstances.

“The market in our country is an irresistible force,” Braudis said. “Despite laws against it, employers in this country are dying for cheap labor.

“The bottom line is if no employer hired undocumented labor, the source of that labor would end,” he said, but he added that’s not happening. “So the immigrants, knowing that work, however illegal, will provide them with money here, they will continue.”

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