Immigration bill a mixed plate |

Immigration bill a mixed plate

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Leo Acosta serves up a dish during lunchtime at Tequila's as Transito Alvarado tends to a pot Thursday in Glenwood Springs. A chief issue with the new immigration law is that it creates a pathway for immigrants to become American citizens, and also helps employers who depend on an immigrant workforce. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” As the U.S. Senate and the nation debate the pros and cons of a new, bipartisan immigration proposal, Joael Balderas sees only positives in the measure.

“I think that it is good for everyone,” the Denver construction worker said as he and coworkers stopped for a bite to eat this week at Taco Bell in Glenwood Springs.

Balderas, who is from Mexico, said he thinks the measure will provide economic opportunities to immigrants “and make this country stronger” by enhancing its work force.

“I think that it is a good proposal,” Balderas said before hurrying out to catch a ride with his crew in a Denver Grouting truck.

Tom Ziemann, director of Catholic Charities in Glenwood Springs, thinks the proposed legislation could have both positive and negative impacts on the immigrants his office serves. But he concedes that may be the necessary outcome of the kind of compromise needed between competing factions to achieve any significant reform.

“That’s probably the way it had to happen in order to hash something out that both sides feel comfortable with,” he said.

The big question is whether any of the compromises go so far as to be deal-breakers. One of the most attractive elements of the reform package to Ziemann – something that makes other aspects of it easier to swallow – is what he calls a “pathway to citizenship.” The measure would provide a way for those here illegally to obtain citizenship.

As Ziemann is the first to concede, some people call that amnesty, and don’t like it. The fact that the bill would enable illegal residents to obtain legal status is one of the biggest points of contention.

“That’s the stickler as far as we’re concerned, and obviously it’s the stickler that’s holding up the Senate right now,” said Dana Isham, founder of Rocky Mountain Minutemen of Western Colorado, a group concerned about illegal immigration.

Isham believes the measure would pass easily if amnesty and a route to citizenship for illegal residents weren’t involved. Some of the other aspects of the legislation include:

– more fencing and guards along the U.S.-Mexican border;

– heightened requirements for employers to verify a job applicant’s legal status and tougher penalties for unlawful hiring;

– creation of a new temporary guest worker program under which people could do up to three two-year stints in the United States if they returned home for a year between each stint.

Isham said amnesty rewards illegal behavior. He said groups such as his would be willing to consider amnesty only if the government secured its borders and started enforcing laws aimed at employers.

Marianne Virgili, president and chief executive officer of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, said the chamber hasn’t taken a position on the new immigration measure but its national counterpart has endorsed it as a way of helping meet labor force needs. She said the national chamber is opposing attempts to amend the measure by cutting back or eliminating the guest-worker provision.

Virgili thinks a lot of local businesses already use an existing guest worker program for seasonal help, but she said it’s harder to use it to hire longer-term employees. She sees an expanded guest worker program as important to helping deal with a severe local labor shortage.

“It is really tough. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” she said of the shortage.

But Glenwood Springs resident John Wilson, who does construction finishing work, thinks the answer instead is for U.S. companies to pay more for American workers. Wilson used to have his own company but said he was put out of business because he lost a lot of work to immigrant workers who were paid less.

Like Isham, Wilson ardently opposes amnesty. But he recognizes the factors that cause people in Mexico to cross the border illegally to work in the United States.

“I know what the conditions are like down there; I can understand why they come here,” he said.

Wilson said it’s up to lawmakers and businesses to make conditions here unfavorable enough that illegal immigrants won’t come here to work.

Ziemann doesn’t consider the proposed legislation entirely favorable to immigrants. Illegal immigrants who are heads of households would have to return to their home countries and pay $5,000 in fees and fines before being able to earn legal status in the United States. Ziemann wonders how difficult it would be for poorer immigrants to come up with such fees, and to pay for the trips between countries.

He’s worried about the bill’s potential for splitting up families. For example, future immigrants would be given preference points based on factors such as education and employment skills, with family connections having a lower priority.

“This is a real radical change in American immigration policy if we no longer give family members preference,” he said.

Ziemann and Isham agreed that many of the details of the new measure remain unclear. And Ziemann predicts a tough battle in Congress to get any immigration reform passed, but he hopes some kind of changes can be made. He said the current situation results in “a lot of needless suffering.”

Balderas said he has three years of residency in the United States and has to wait two more years to apply for citizenship. He’s not sure how the new legislation would affect him personally, but said he and friends have been following media coverage about it with interest.

He said he liked the idea that it would give illegal immigrants a shot at legal status, “with all the rights and all the obligations of a citizen” or legal resident.

Wilson views the current immigration debate with resignation, given the growth in the immigrant population he has seen in the Roaring Fork Valley and across the country.

“It’s almost like the battle’s lost already, as much as I hate to admit it,” he said.

Wilson admits to the irony in that comment, noting that the United States includes territory that once belonged to Mexico.

“Maybe we should just give it back to them,” he said.

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