Summit forum eyes impacts of immigration
October 13, 2007
FRISCO, Colo. About 50 people turned out to hear a panel of local employers, students and health care workers discuss the hot-button issue of immigration Thursday evening in Frisco.Even with so many different views and opinions surrounding the topic, particularly concerning illegal immigration, the forum managed to steer clear of any contention.I thought it wouldve been more controversial, said local Eric Hanzel, who sat in on the two-hour discussion. It seemed like everyone was on the same page.The forum, sponsored by Our Future Summit, aimed to look at the impact of immigration to Summit County in the areas of education, business, health care and overall community well-being.Panelists from the Summit School District Board of Education, Copper Mountain Resort, the Community Care Clinic, the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, Summit County Social Services, as well as two high school students and a Frisco-based immigration attorney weighed in on how changing demographics in Summit County affect their respective businesses.School board member Stu Adams said the schools no longer operate under a sort and select mentality, but rather the assumption that every student will move on to post-secondary education. In doing so, its developed programs to make sure every thats possible, including the English Language Acquisition program for non-native speakers.When a kid comes through the door of our school that doesnt speak the language, we know we have to get him speaking the language that we teach our classes in or hes not going to be able to gain the benefit of an education, Adams said.Adams said roughly 22 percent of the districts total enrollment, or about 650 kids, are considered English language learners a number that is growing at a rate of 2 percent each year. Over the last 20 years, the school districts English language learner community has increased 2,025 percent, he said.Even with programs aimed toward helping non-native speakers succeed, theres more work to be done. The graduation rate among Hispanics is just 47 percent, compared with an overall graduation rate of 86 percent, Adams said.If we cant keep them, theyre not going to get the education they need, he said.Business issues discussedWhen it comes to local business, many employers rely on immigrants to work seasonal or shorter term jobs.Tony Gancev, owner of Team Temp Staffing in Dillon, said his worker demographic is three-quarters immigrants and one-quarter transients from all over the country.They typically fill jobs in the construction or hospitality industries and work between two weeks and two months, but his labor force is inadequate.We face a lot of challenges in matching the demand for labor, Gancev said. Its just there arent enough workers to fill all the positions in the county.Gancev has tried unsuccessfully to recruit more workers from the Front Range, and would like to bring people in on seasonal visas, but found there arent enough to go around.The government issues 33,000 H2B visas for seasonal workers in the winter and another 33,000 in the summer, nationwide, said Frisco-based immigration attorney Eric Fisher.I think between Copper and Vail countrywide between all their resorts, they could still use all the seasonal visas in the winter and most of the ones in the summer. The process has become harder and harder, he said.Fisher said he believes employers need to offer housing in order to attract people to fill seasonal positions.Health care a major concernSummit Countys growing immigrant population also has impacts on the areas health-care providers.Randall Reitz, executive director of the Community Care Clinic, said he has Spanish and French speaking staff members to work with immigrants, and has worked to provide services that fit the culture, such as an exercise class for Latinas.While the nonprofit clinic is mostly privately funded, it does rely on local, state and federal grants and follows all laws pertaining to what money can be used to cover services for illegal immigrants.In terms of social services, in the last seven years, the countys Medicaid caseload has grown from 215 to 545, said Sue Gruber with Summit County Social Services. Illegal immigrants are eligible for emergency Medicaid for pre-natal care or childbirth delivery and babies born are eligible for Medicaid for a year after that, Gruber said.Most programs, like childcare assistance or food stamps, are not open to illegal immigrants, however if they have children born in the United States, those kids are eligible, she said.About 70 percent of the participants in Medicaid, Baby Care and Kid Care programs are immigrants; 40 percent of those in the food stamp program are immigrants; and 55 percent of families in the Childcare Assistance program are immigrants, Gruber said.While the number of annual child abuse investigations hasnt increased with the surge of immigrants to the county, the participants have changed. About 40 percent of the referrals received by Summit County Social Services are on immigrant families, typically for lack of supervision, Gruber said.A lot of these families have one, two and three jobs and the kids, theres no one to take care of them, so young children are often left home alone or left to take care of younger siblings, Gruber said.Thursdays forum was one of several planned to discuss immigration-related issues in the county.