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Guests aren’t so welcome

Terry Paulson, an Aspen environmentalist, wonders how many immigrants the United States can support. (Aspen Times file)
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A liberal environmentalist from Aspen and an ex-Marine from Frisco may seem unlikely allies, but illegal immigration has made strange political bedfellows of them and others.

The emotionally charged issue has brought together Coloradans with views as varied as their backgrounds.

Terry Paulson, the Aspen environmentalist, is concerned about overpopulation. He believes the country is allowing more immigration ” legal and illegal ” than it can handle.

“It’s purely a numbers issue for me,” Paulson said. “What can we support?”

Mike McCraken, the ex-Marine from Frisco, acted by joining the Minuteman Project ” volunteers who took it upon themselves earlier this year to help the U.S. Border Patrol search for Mexicans trying to cross into the United States illegally.

He said his prime motivation for wanting to stop the flow of workers into the country is law and order.

“We’re a country of laws. It’s as simple as that,” McCraken said. “The laws are on the books. Let’s enforce them uniformly.”

McCraken and Paulson aren’t alone in their views. About 70 percent of Americans said they consider reducing illegal immigration “very important,” according to a 2002 national survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

That same survey showed 55 percent of the public want legal immigration reduced while 15 percent want it increased and 27 percent want it to remain the same. That’s according to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank devoted to immigration issues, which reported the survey results.

Like Paulson and McCraken, the topic of illegal immigration has made allies of former Colo. Gov. Richard Lamm, who served as a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a conservative Republican from Colorado Springs. While they come from different ends of the political spectrum, they hold the same position on illegal immigration.

Tancredo has championed reforming and controlling legal immigration, and ending illegal immigration altogether. He has openly criticized the Bush administration over its immigration policy and is considering a bid for the presidency in 2008 to force debate on the issue.

Lamm is known in the state for his controversial positions on issues like dying, rape and Colorado’s opportunity to host the Olympics. He doesn’t shy away from taking a blunt stand on immigration.

The influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico is an “invasion” that saddles taxpayers with higher costs just so a few employers can take advantage of cheap labor, Lamm charged.

“A few employers of illegal immigrants get the benefit, and the rest of us pay for the schools, health care and other costs these illegal families have on the taxpayers,” Lamm said. “To me this is a liberal issue ” illegal immigration is hurting the average American worker, is stealing tax money desperately needed elsewhere, is burdening our schools and preventing the average American from getting their kids a decent education.”

Colorado spends about $7,000 per student per year in public schools, Lamm said, citing data from the Colorado Department of Education. There are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 children of illegal immigrants in schools throughout the state. That’s $210 million to $280 million in annual spending on the children of illegals, Lamm calculates.

“I believe it is beyond dispute that these Spanish-speaking kids, coming in the numbers they are coming, are significantly impacting our school system in a negative way, hurting the education of people who are legally in the country,” Lamm said.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, Anglo parents, concerned about the growing Latino population in schools and the elimination of a Montessori program, successfully petitioned the state to start a new Montessori school. The school has a significantly higher percentage of Anglo students, fueling public debate about the racial makeup of the town’s public schools.

In nearby Basalt, the public outcry over immigrant influx hasn’t been as great, although the percentage of Latino students has grown similarly since the mid-1990s.

Some parents sought alternative options for their children, including schools in Aspen, five years ago when the Latino influx peaked.

“I don’t sense that’s happening now,” said Susan Linden, whose daughter attends sixth grade in Basalt. “The schools have really addressed the issue.”

Another parent with a sixth-grader in Basalt said she views the diversity of students as a benefit to her daughter’s education, not a hindrance.

“I feel that the school district is handling it in our school,” she said. “They’re doing a good job integrating Latinos into the classrooms.”

Along with concerns about effects of illegal workers and their dependents on public institutions, Tancredo and Lamm decry the loss of jobs to illegal immigrants.

Tancredo claimed Congress is afraid to clamp down on illegal immigration because it fears crippling American businesses.

“We pretend we have an immigration policy, but we wink at people who violate it,” Tancredo said.

He said illegal workers and their families, primarily from Mexico, burden the health care and education systems with costs that aren’t offset by extra taxes. Arrests of illegal immigrants also adds to overcrowding at jails and prisons.

Tancredo continues to push legislation in Congress that would stiffen penalties for employers caught hiring illegal workers. He said businesses must be forced to check the Social Security number of applicants to make sure they are in the country legally.

“That’s a program that’s available today but isn’t used, for obvious reasons,” he said.

As it stands today, some employers carefully check applicants’ backgrounds while others gladly hire illegal workers at lower wages, Tancredo said. He said contractors, including some in the Roaring Fork Valley, regularly call his office, claiming they cannot compete with peers that hire illegal workers.

One longtime general contractor in the Roaring Fork Valley said the reality is it’s “very, very common” for construction companies to hire illegal workers, although not necessarily on purpose.

“I’ve had mostly legals,” said the contractor, who requested anonymity. But he acknowledged it’s not always easy to tell.

“They’ve got paperwork. Sometimes it’s kind of bogus. They smile when they hand it to you,” he said.

But how much would it hurt to dry up that source of labor? Lamm said it’s a fallacy that a crackdown on illegal immigration would ruin parts of the economy ” like those of resort towns in the Colorado mountains. The economies, he said, will adjust to the laws.

“We did well before this massive wave of illegals, we will do well after they stop coming,” he said in an e-mail interview. “These same arguments were made for slavery: cheap goods, who will do the work, etc.

“If we need more workers, do it legally,” Lamm concluded.

Lamm said construction companies depending on illegal workers for manual labor and hotels using illegal workers to clean rooms might have to pay “a few dollars more” for legal labor. But communities will benefit because they won’t have to pay the hidden costs of cheap labor, like increased education costs.

But the contractor in the Roaring Fork Valley said construction costs would soar even higher with legal and illegal immigrants. There simply aren’t enough nonmigrant workers available.

He insisted that no one hires illegal workers to exploit cheap labor or to gain an unfair advantage over competitors. They hire Latinos because they are “the best workers.” And they are well aware of pay rates.

“They know the good, white carpenters make $35 per hour, and they know the brown ones should too,” he said. And if they don’t they can easily find employment with another firm.

Tancredo predicted it is just a matter of time before Congress passes a bill securing U.S. borders. Even if politicians don’t want to deal with illegal immigration from a business standpoint, security will force the issue. He senses many Americans want immigration reform.

“I always think I’m going in an area to start a fire, but it’s already there,” Tancredo said. “I just have to fan it, and I do.”

The guts of Tancredo’s reform is to reduce legal immigration from the current level of about 1.25 million to 300,000 annually for five years, then consider if numbers can be increased again. He wants to eliminate illegal immigration by requiring better background checks by employers and stiffer fines for violators, as well as stricter border control.

Tancredo does, however, endorse the idea of a guest worker program, where a certain number of foreigners would be allowed into the Unites States for a limited time.

That might ease the minds of some who say illegals help grease the wheels of Colorado’s service economy, but it would no doubt reduce the number of workers available for hire.

McCraken ” the Minuteman ” doesn’t concern himself with legal immigration limits or guest worker programs. He’s cares only about illegal immigration.

McCraken, 63, liked what he heard so he volunteered to be a Minuteman. He spent three weeks with three other retirees helping to patrol a half-mile stretch of the border. His compatriots were armed; he was not. McCraken said guns weren’t necessary.

“It was, for the most part, boring,” he said. However, his group identified 16 illegals attempting to cross the border and called them in to authorities. “We observed many more, but they stayed on the other side.”

McCraken said he felt a sense of accomplishment from helping the Minutemen. They dispelled stereotypes that the organization was just a bunch of racist vigilantes, he claimed. They raised national and international awareness about illegal immigration into the United States. And they “shut down” that sector.

McCraken said he doesn’t have an opinion on whether legal immigration policies should be reformed. He just wants to make sure people who enter the United States do so legally. And while it’s probably not practical to deport all illegal aliens, McCraken does think they should be identified.

“We need to know who the hell is here,” he said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


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