Immigrants Want Work
America is no stranger to waves of immigration. It could be argued that mass immigration is the single greatest force to have shaped American history. In a sense, war, persecution and famine abroad are America’s true forefathers ” the cause and creation of her large and diverse population. America’s most recognizable landmark, the Statue of Liberty, stands as a symbol to the masses of people who at different times and for different reasons have poured across America’s borders.
In each of these instances, America has struggled to assimilate its newcomers.
Today, America finds herself dealing with another mass immigration. According to census bureau estimates, the foreign-born population of the United States is currently 33.1 million, with an estimated 8 million inside the country without the government’s knowledge or permission. During the 1990s, an average of more than 1.3 million immigrants ” legal and illegal ” settled in the United States each year. Many believe those estimates to be low; almost all agree they will grow significantly in coming years.
The current wave of immigration is different in part because its location has moved from East to West; the drama is no longer played out on the shores of Ellis Island, but on the banks of the Rio Grande.
According to numbers cited by Newsweek magazine, California must build one new school per day to keep up with the influx of 3,000 immigrants and their kids, most of whom are Mexican, currently entering the state every 24 hours.
In Colorado, due in large part to an explosion in Latino immigration, there are currently 400,000 foreign-born people in the state, including an estimated 200,000 illegal aliens. These numbers represent a 161 percent increase in the state’s immigrant population over the last 10 years.
The most dense pockets of immigrants in the West are in metro areas. But even in the semirural Roaring Fork Valley, the immigrant population has changed the area’s culture and feel.
Literally, the complexion of the valley has darkened. Whereas once a dark face would be an exception, now Latinos are approaching the majority in certain areas.
Sixty percent of Carbondale Elementary School students are Latino, either the students or their parents foreign-born. In Garfield County, the number of Latinos jumped from 1,698 in 1990 to 7,890 in 2000. Even in pricey Pitkin County, the Latino population nearly doubled in the same 10 years, from 576 to 974. And it’s unlikely the census actually captured the true size of the Latino population.
These newcomers are all the more recognizable because economic forces and cultural preferences have huddled them together in many of the valley’s cheapest neighborhoods. Of the 38 trailers in the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park in Basalt, for example, all but two are inhabited by Latinos.
It’s impossible to say for sure how many foreign-born residents are here illegally, but one Eagle-based immigration attorney estimates the number at 40 percent.
The plight of the valley’s immigrant population is wide-ranging. Some are white and English-speaking ” Australians, Brits, Kiwis, ski bums or nannies trying to extend their stay. The vast majority, however, are Latinos seeking opportunities unavailable in their home countries. Many illegal immigrants struggle just above the poverty line, working seasonal jobs, overcrowded and under-represented in apartments and trailers throughout the valley. Others are wealthy members of their community, sometimes earning more than $100,000 a year.
The drastic demographic change has caused its share of controversy. Battle lines have been drawn. Some citizens and organizations have dedicated huge amounts of resources to help the valley’s Latino immigrant population. Others are committed to seeing them deported.
Some believe the growing immigrant population to be a sign of an impending environmental crisis, a plague on the resources and societies of the West. Others see the immigrant population as a beneficial segment of society, hardworking men and women who deserve respect and support.
Meanwhile, quietly and deliberately, the Latino influence grows, with more workers, families and businesses appearing in the valley each year.
Perhaps the most important people involved in immigration in the valley are also the most secretive. In 1999, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ” formally the INS ” opened a field office in Glenwood Springs. The office’s task is to enforce immigration laws in the area. It is extremely difficult to get information from the office ” questions are directed to a spokeswoman in California, who rarely returns calls. The name of the ICE’s mission to round up criminal illegal aliens ” “Operation Predator” ” reflects its evasive and shadowy nature.
Some basic information is available. The office consists of a “Quick Response Team,” one of six in Colorado. The Quick Response Team targets illegal aliens for deportation, but only so-called “absconders.” According to ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley, absconders are either criminals, deportees who have returned to America or refused to leave, or those smuggling aliens into the area. The Quick Response Team does not currently target businesses in raids, nor does it actively pursue noncriminal illegal aliens.
Local police officers will only report illegal aliens if they are found to be involved in criminal acts. The belief that an illegal alien will likely be deported if pulled over on a routine traffic violation is a myth, according to Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson.
“Our job is to address criminal activity,” Ryerson said. “It’s not the duty of Aspen police officers to check ICE status. There are definitely circumstances, such as criminal arrests, where that does become apparent. In those cases we pass the information on to ICE.”
Illegal aliens detained by Glenwood ICE officers for immigration violations are held in one of the facility’s holding rooms for a maximum of 12 hours before going in front of an immigration judge in Denver or volunteering to return to their country of origin. Deported aliens are transported either by federal bus from Denver to the Mexican border or on a federal aircraft from Grand Junction. A spokeswoman for ICE did not reply to repeated requests to learn the number of deportees processed through the Glenwood office since it opened.
There are those in the Aspen area who believe the ICE office, and others like it across the West, is not doing nearly enough to rid America of illegal immigrants. Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR) is a statewide group that believes all illegal aliens should be deported and that the number of legal immigrants entering the United States each year be reduced from a million to 300,000.
The group has strong local ties. CAIR’s spokesman is Aspenite Mike McGarry. Aspen City Councilman Terry Paulson is a vocal supporter.
McGarry and Paulson believe mass immigration to be a grave threat to the environment. They argue that the current influx will swell America’s population to nearly a half-billion by 2050, far beyond sustainable limits. Allow immigrants to keep coming, Paulson and McGarry believe, and America is headed toward environmental crisis ” disease, environmental destruction, depletion of resources, cultural decay, the four horsemen of apocalyptic overcrowding.
“When you run a ranch, there’s a certain number of cattle that is ideal for that ranch. Add one more cow, and suddenly resources are scarce, and the cattle become weak and sick,” Paulson says. “It’s the same with humans. We have a population breaking point. People don’t like to be called cattle, but in a way that’s what we are. Every major problem we have in society can somehow be linked to overpopulation.”
There are other aspects to Paulson and McGarry’s anti-immigration argument. McGarry complains that illegal aliens aren’t accountable for breaking the law; Paulson says immigrants are eroding American democracy by forming self-serving voting blocs. The environmental argument, however, is their best weapon. Recently, a group of anti-immigrationists, including former Colorado Governor and CAIR member Richard Lamm, made a strong bid for the leadership of the Sierra Club. They failed, but immigration and population growth has become a talking point for environmental activists across the nation.
Paulson, who has served on Aspen City Council for 11 years, says his anti-immigration efforts will focus on state and national, rather than local, policy change. McGarry, too, will focus at the federal level, working to increase border enforcement (“We should have the army on the border.”), to cut the number of visas granted each year and to expel illegal immigrants. Both men believe a top-down approach is the surest way to protect the valley from being overrun.
“People in Aspen don’t think this is a problem,” McGarry says. “But that’s because we are different. We’re up here in the hills. The real problems haven’t reached us yet. But they are starting to. Unless we do something on the national and state levels, it’s going to be a huge problem just about everywhere.”
The other side
While Paulson and McGarry are lobbying state and national politicians against mass immigration, a large number of charity organizations work on the ground to support immigrants and their families. Members of these non profit groups are the closest thing to immigrant activists in the valley.
The list of organizations supporting Latino immigrants is long and wide-ranging. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are donated each year to support the valley’s Latino community.
The Mountain Family Health Center offers free health care to uninsured immigrant families. Catholic Charities of the Western Slope provides advice and resources for illegal immigrants to help them on a path to citizenship. Grassroots Aspen funds a Latino Youth camp in Moab. The Stepstone Center in Carbondale works to organize and empower Latinos. And the Aspen Valley Community Foundation, the largest grant-giver in the area, recently set up an initiative to provide money and support for poor Latinos. None of these groups distinguishes between legal and illegal residents in the provision of service or financial support.
Although he runs a for-profit business, Marty Martinez provides one of the most important resources for immigrants. He runs Rio Vista Services, an accounting firm that helps the valley’s immigrant population with their finances and taxes. To Martinez, illegal immigrants constitute a misunderstood resource. He argues that illegal aliens pay sales taxes, income taxes and payments for social security, while rarely seeing any return on that money. In a valley with low unemployment, illegal aliens do not take American jobs, but instead take the jobs Americans don’t want. At the same time, the influx of immigrants has created a new market for local businesses.
“There are some people who earn up to $100,000 a year and pay taxes on it,” Martinez says. “They are also spending a lot of that money on local industry ” it’s not all going back home. I think that’s why you see a lot of local businesses starting to target Latinos; they realize what a huge market potential exists here.”
Scott Chaplin, Carbondale Town Council member and director of the Stepstone Center, a nonprofit grassroots organization in Carbondale, is one of the valley’s most vocal supporters of local immigrants. Like Martinez, Chaplin believes the valley’s immigrant population to be hardworking and valuable to the community.
“In my experience these are good people who work hard and honestly,” Chaplin says. “Many do pay taxes. Certainly, all of them pay sales taxes. They take tough jobs. If they seem foreign now, those are the aches and pains of first-generation immigrants. It will get better.”
Chaplin believes that McGarry’s and Paulson’s fear of uncontrollable population growth is unfounded. He cites studies indicating that Latino immigrants have much smaller families than their counterparts back home. Chaplin believes America’s population will stabilize as immigrants continue to assimilate American values, including family planning.
Chaplin is not soft on immigration enforcement ” he agrees with Paulson and McGarry that far too many illegal aliens cross the border each day. But he does not see enforcement as the answer. To Chaplin, America’s meddling in Mexican and Central American affairs is to blame for the hardship that drives immigrants across the border.
Corrupt regimes, such as those of Agusto Pinochet in Chile and Carlos Armas in Guatemala, have been bolstered and even installed by the United States over the last half-century, undermining democracies, manipulating economies and causing millions of people to seek better opportunities in America.
“Most immigrants coming to the U.S., especially from Mexico, come here due to lack of economic opportunity in their countries,” Chaplin wrote in 2000. “Can we really take a high moral stand and say to those that want to immigrate here, ‘Yes, we may have destroyed your democracies and created economic hardship for you, but we need to protect our own environment, so do not come here’?”
For Chaplin, tighter border enforcement can only be a stopgap measure. The immigration problem can only be helped by a U.S. foreign policy that promotes economic success in South and Central America rather than the interests of American companies. Until that occurs, Chaplin believes Americans should support the immigrants seeking a better life within our borders.
As the national debate evolves, the Roaring Fork Valley, like so many other places across the West, continues its transformation into a multicultural society.
Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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