Surge from the south
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 for the next eight weeks. The series 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.America, we often remind ourselves, is a nation of immigrants. And Colorado, as much as any other state, was settled mostly by newcomers to the U.S., as well as those from other parts of the country.But when it comes to reconciling that fact with the current wave of immigration mostly from Mexico and many carrying the label of “unauthorized migrant” – Colorado can’t seem to make up its mind. On the one side are those who say being in the country illegally is clearly wrong, and anyone who fits that description should leave immediately. On the other extreme are employers who say they couldn’t make it without the endless supply of cheap, reliable labor surging up from the south. Because of their dicey status in the country, illegals are generally willing to work for less, but even cut-rate wages are a vast improvement over what they can make at home in Mexico.Immigration is a hot-button topic, an emotional touchstone for left, right and center. From the capitol building in Denver to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., and in a number of other states, legislation is pending to address problems related to illegal immigration. Think tanks, coalitions, committees, task forces and others are applying plenty of brain power, research, statistics and opinion to the discussion – and there’s no shortage of raw emotion that’s part of it as well. For a nation of immigrants, many of us sure don’t seem very open to rolling out the red carpet for newcomers – especially if they’re here illegally. But it’s not too hard to imagine why Mexicans – who make up the lion’s share of immigrants, legal or otherwise – come here even in the face of significant adversity. Against a backdrop of those loudly saying “We don’t want you!” is the much quieter assertion from employers who say they’ll have better-paying work when they get here. Peak flowImmigration goes in peaks and valleys, says Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.”We’re in a peak period right now and have been since the 1980s,” Meissner said. “More importantly, our immigration system is not working properly, so there is increasing concern and recognition that nobody’s in charge.”Meissner is also functioning as director of the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and former Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich. The task force has tried to boil the immigration problem down to four areas that need attention, in order of priority: upholding the rule of law; meeting immigration enforcement and national security needs; the economics behind illegal immigration; and promoting integration of immigrants into society.Law comes first, she said, because we have to start with the people who can be here legally. The hope is to alter current immigration laws that don’t match reality.”If you want to enforce laws, then you have to have laws that can be enforced,” Meissner said. “Congress just has not kept pace with changes on the ground, so we’re in a very bad place.”Referring to the current warring sides on the immigration front, Meissner said she hopes the task force’s final report – due early in 2006 – will provide solid information.”We’ll present findings and recommendations to create informed policy rather than relying on emotion and erroneous information,” she said.But for Clare Huntington, a professor of law at CU-Boulder who specializes in immigration issues, emotion will always be part of the equation.”I’m not sure there’s a huge difference between this wave of immigration and any other in our history,” Huntington said. “We’ve always been hugely xenophobic in our country. We used to see the Irish as not white; the same with the Italians. Before that, xenophobia was directed toward Chinese immigrants, and also Japanese.”Call it mistrust, misunderstanding or outright hatred and racism, Huntington said, but the common denominator is money.”It’s based on a real or imagined economic concern – ‘These people are taking our jobs,'” she said.The other side of the economic equation is the gulf between what people can earn in Mexico versus the U.S.”So long as there’s that huge economic difference between the U.S. and Mexico, you’re going to have unauthorized migration,” Huntington said.Rule of lawThat kind of thinking simply isn’t acceptable to state Rep. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs. Part of a group of state Republicans frustrated by what they see as inaction on the state and federal level, Schultheis said Colorado needs to make itself less attractive to illegal immigrants – much as Arizona did with its Proposition 200, which barred illegals from access to state services like welfare.”We need to put the squeeze on employers,” Schultheis said. “The ski areas may not like that, the Mexican restaurants, some parts of agriculture. But it’s a myth that no one else will do the work.”Schultheis said the state’s reliance on illegal immigrants to work for low wages has created a “slave wage” that both drives illegal immigration and acts as a disincentive for U.S. citizens to take certain jobs.”We need to stop creating a slave class in the U.S. and ask these people to leave the country,” he said. “We are a nation of laws, and if we don’t like that, we need to change the laws, not ignore them.”Schultheis also points to other dangers from illegal immigrants. They carry diseases, such as tuberculosis and leprosy, he said. Our porous border is making it easier for terrorists to gain access to the U.S. through Mexico.”We only need one bomb to go off in Denver and we’ll say ‘Gee, why didn’t we do something about it.'”Donna Lipinski, an immigration attorney in Denver, is also forming a group – on the other side of the issue from Schultheis’ Republican Study Committee. Lipinski said she is meeting with others to respond to some of the “horrendous” things she’s hearing.”It’s all about Mexico, and how all the problems of Colorado and our country are being blamed on immigrants,” Lipinski said. Referring to a November meeting of the Republican Study Committee, she said the talk is all fear-based.”They were talking about how Mexicans are trying to build a master plan to take over the Southwest and then secede,” she said. “They’re reacting out of fear, and it’s frightening to have that kind of hatred out there.”Like Huntington, Lipinski said the U.S. is working with an immigration system that’s simply broken. For example, she said, there isn’t a good visa option for workers who want to stay for a year or more. A ski resort can hire guest workers for a season for a specific job under an H2B visa, but that doesn’t help a trucking company or a restaurant that needs workers year-round.”Our immigration laws don’t have visas that fit the need of employers,” she said. “There should be a new ‘H’ category for year-round workers, a system where they’d have to register and then come in legally. That’s what they want, not to risk their lives going through coyotes.”Huntington said she’s not sure the political will exists to truly tackle the problem.”I don’t think the federal government wants to do anything about this, so they put out proposals they won’t follow up on,” she said. “They don’t want to be seen as being soft on illegal immigration or national security issues, and they don’t want to make illegal immigration not a fact of life because they recognize the need for business.”When it comes right down to it, illegal immigration may just be one of those things – like abortion and capital punishment – that Americans will continue to fight about, possibly with only partial solutions along the way.”There’s isn’t a good solution,” Huntington said. “It’s an economic problem.”
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