Employers say immigrants fill critical economic niche
December 8, 2005
To explore the dilemma surrounding immigrants in Colorado, newspapers from Colorado Mountain News Media and the Greeley Tribune created a series of stories that will run each Monday eight weeks. This is the second in the series, which was planned and coordinated by the Vail Daily. Correspondents reported from the resort areas of Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, to the bedroom communities of the Roaring Fork Valley and the agricultural city of Greeley. Another writer spent time in northern Mexico, visiting the towns from which many of Colorado’s immigrants originate.While the battle over immigration rages in Colorado and beyond, Glenwood Springs contractor Mark Gould looks at his largely Hispanic workforce and states a simple fact: He couldn’t make it without them.While teens fresh out of high school disdain the ditch-digging work that’s the backbone of Gould’s excavating business, Hispanic immigrants line up for the $14-an-hour jobs.”The young American male doesn’t want to work that hard,” Gould said. “We raised our children in this electronic world. They say, ‘I should be able to make a living … with a computer, not cleaning toilets.'”Gould, who grew up on a farm, sees a difference between the times when he grew up in rural farm country and now.”There’s been a societal change compared to what my dad had. I was expected to work,” he said.Hispanic immigrants in his employ come ready to do a hard day’s work, Gould said. They’re raised in that ethic, but it may have a downside for Latino workers.According to the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, Latinos have a strong work ethic but are more likely to be poor, earn low incomes, and be “contingent” workers holding temporary jobs.Hispanic workers at Gould Construction are not paid less than their Anglo counterparts, Gould said. He pays laborers $14 an hour but maintains that is not a living wage for a single person.A role for immigrant laborPinpointing a monetary value for the net contribution of illegal immigrants – that takes into account their contribution to the labor force as well as their impacts on schools, health care and criminal justice – has proven difficult for economists and researchers. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has made an attempt, though. A 2000 study found that immigrants contributed about $14 billion annually, or 1.8 percent, to the $11 trillion U.S. gross domestic product. Since they published that study, they’ve found minimal evidence to support the claim that immigrant workers displace native workers, which could increase their contribution to as high as 3-4 percent of the GDP, said Pia Orrenius, senior economist in the research department of bank. Orrenius spent the 200405 academic year as senior economist adviser on labor, health and immigration issues for the Bush administration. Orrenius said illegal immigrants are more fiscally beneficial to the economy than legal immigrants because they pay most of the same taxes and don’t have access to as many public services. In addition, she said illegal immigrant labor keeps the costs of goods and services down, which benefits the consumer.
The study found that immigrants contributed to the economic growth in the U.S. by taking jobs in labor-scarce regions and filling jobs native workers often shun. According to her research, immigrant workers filled four out of every 10 job openings in the 1990s, when unemployment hit record lows. With the exception a handful of some small communities in Texas, California and Arizona, illegal immigrants usually contribute more than they cost, said Rutilio Martinez, assistant professor of finance at the University of Northern Colorado Monfort Business School. He believes the same is true in Greeley and in Colorado.In Weld County, illegal immigrants help drive the agriculture industry by topping onions and hoeing weeds in the fields for minimum wage. More work in and produce- and meatpacking plants. Others work in construction. Even though illegal immigrants account for 4.3 percent of workers in the U.S., they account for 19 percent of farm workers, 18 percent of leisure and hospitality workers, 17 percent of construction workers and 15 percent of manufacturing. Martinez said the price of goods and services would increase without the illegal immigrant work force because employers would have to raise wages and increase benefits to entice American workers to fill the jobs filled today by illegal immigrants. How many illegals?It’s impossible to know exactly how many of the immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley are without legal documentation. But they undoubtedly make up a significant part of the Hispanic immigrant population. In Gould’s estimation, it’s a lot higher than the 17 percent figure referenced above, although with counterfeit documents easy to come by, it’s not easy to tell.Gould said he checks the documents of all his prospective workers.”If it looks good, we hire them,” he said. “We don’t have the skill to tell.”Some years ago, he could call in Social Security numbers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or “ICE”), which would either verify them or establish if the number belonged to someone else. They no longer provide that service, Gould said.The reality of immigrant workers, legal or not, is their essential place in the workforce.”There is no unemployment in this valley,” Gould said. “If you ship those … [illegal immigrants] away, there would be an awful lot of hurting businesses. It’s hypocritical for any business hiring Hispanics to say they can do without illegals, because there’s no way of knowing.”Desperate situationsPenny Gonzales-Soto, an immigration attorney with Catholic Charities Northern in Greeley, said hopelessness drives illegal immigrants to pay smugglers – coyotes – between $2,500 and $5,000 to cross the border.
“The majority of our families are coming from incredibly poor areas,” Gonzales-Soto said. “Because if they could make it, they would stay in their country. It’s out of desperation, trying to take care of your family and survive.”Martinez said illegal immigrants wouldn’t come if jobs didn’t await them. About 92 percent of illegal immigrant men and 56 percent of illegal immigrant women work, according to the Pew Hispanic Center study. Whether they take jobs from native citizens remains up for debate. Orrenius said she’s found little evidence to support that. Martinez said the displacement might occur in some low-end construction jobs, but not in agriculture or restaurant jobs.Gonzales-Soto said most families come with plans of making enough money to return to Mexico, El Salvador or Guatemala and open a family business.Those plans often change, though, when families have children or give birth to children here, who become U.S. citizens. The children grow up here, become accustomed to the language and culture, and don’t want to return to places that are like foreign countries to them.As they plant their roots here, families begin spending money in the community. Immigrants don’t spend as much as “native” citizens because they send approximately 10 percent of their pay back to their families in their native countries, according to a 2004 study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank. In 2004, immigrants in Colorado sent home $544 million. A Migration Policy Institute study estimated the total remittances for 2005 from the U.S. to Mexico alone will be $17 billion.Even so, that still leaves a good portion of their incomes to spend in the community on rent, houses, groceries, clothes and entertainment. “They can’t send it all home because they still have to live,” Gonzales-Soto said. Martinez agreed that the illegal immigrants form an important part of the community. If illegal immigrants returned home, schools would have to layoff teachers, local businesses would lose money and pockets of the city would be left empty, he said. One additional benefit is the money illegal immigrants pay into Social Security. The 1986 Immigration Reform Act made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire illegal immigrants. So, when an illegal immigrant enters the country, he or she must obtain a fake Social Security card – which are available for $50-$250 on the black market – to get a job.These same workers who pay into Social Security will never draw their shares out because the Social Security Administration will eventually find the fraud. The money then goes into a special fund that adds to Social Security’s coffers. Ken Buck, district attorney in Weld County, said the principles of supply and demand will continue to bring illegal immigrants across the border.
“Clearly, there is a role in this country for immigrant labor and that’s something the country has become accustomed to over the last few decades,” Buck said. The U.S. isn’t the only country in the world that depends on an immigrant labor force. Martinez said France, Germany, Spain and Belgium hesitate to stop the flow because it would hurt the economy and some of its wealthiest, most powerful residents. “If the government really wanted, they could solve it overnight,” Martinez said. “But they must go after big employers, and the little businesses would follow.”Hispanic perspectiveAs the editor of the Spanish language newspaper La Mision, Luis Polar has a unique perspective on the Hispanic workforce.”In the last couple years there are positions that are almost exclusively taken by Latinos,” he said – namely at fast-food restaurants such as Wendy’s, Taco Bell and McDonald’s.Hispanics will take the jobs that “require more labor,” he said. “You don’t need an education, just the heart for working.”A few years ago Anglos were doing those jobs,” he said. But over the years, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living, and workers are having to commute farther to work.Polar does see advancement. More Hispanic workers are becoming firmly established in the valley’s middle class. Now he sees Hispanic bank managers, as well as real estate and mortgage brokers.”Slowly but surely, these [positions] are being filled by Hispanics,” he said.Last year, Hispanic businessmen and women formed Club Rotario to encourage and support Hispanic businesses in the valley.”Before then, there were not enough Hispanic professionals to start one,” Polar said. What began as a group of friends is now a growing service club.Polar’s newspaper also thrives on the growing Hispanic population, reaching from 20,000 to 30,000 readers between Aspen, Avon and Parachute.But even with some Hispanics moving up, newer arrivals – particularly the illegals – will find their way into the local service industry. These workers, with the heart and will to work those demanding, lower-paying jobs, will likely continue to be a significant presence in the Colorado workforce.