It was a quiet May Day in the mountains of Colorado, and much calmer on the immigration-rights demonstration front across much of the state and nation than the past two years. But as Coloradans gather to celebrate Cinco de Mayo today, there is a growing sense of unease over intensified enforcement efforts and stalled federal reform of immigration laws.Congress has seemingly gridlocked on comprehensive immigration reform, and the topic is a non-starter for the three candidates still vying for the presidency. Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both backed presumptive Republican candidate Sen. John McCain’s failed amnesty proposal two years ago, and they all have given the nod to a border fence.
But at the state level, an anti-immigration law from 2006 has ratcheted up the level of fear among immigrant laborers in many communities, including the luxe resort region of the central Rockies, where tourism and real estate development are king and cheap labor is desperately needed in order to stoke the twin engines of construction and hospitality.
A dwindling number of work visas nationwide has sent resort operators scrambling outside of their usual hunting grounds of Australia, New Zealand and Eastern Europe and into South America in search of student workers from countries like Argentina. And now they’re getting even more creative, mining places like Puerto Rico for workers unencumbered by visa restrictions.
In Eagle County, home to Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas and with a Hispanic population of 27.5 percent compared with 19.7 statewide, legal and illegal Latino immigrants remain a critical part of the local labor pool – particularly in Vail, where a billion-dollar-plus construction boom has been underway for several years.
A booming resort economy that for years has relied heavily on the wealthiest upper crust of Latin American society as both tourists during the holiday seasons of Christmas and Easter and also as second-home owners, Eagle County conversely is deeply dependent on Latino workers who are now being aggressively targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.
Labor and housing shortages came to a critical head this past ski season, forcing some businesses to cut back hours of operation, delaying construction projects and even preventing the local ski areas from staying open longer despite record snowfall amounts.
Vail ski area shut down April 13, and resort operators said a lack of workers prevented them from extending the season. Vail’s famed Sweet Basil restaurant had to cut lunch service for the same reason, and Vail Valley employers have complained for years about acute labor shortages.
“These people are not a threat to our pool of available jobs; they’re absorbing jobs that truly no one else wants to fill,” said Don Cohen, a Republican who heads up the Economic Council of Eagle County. “The combination of raids and tightening up on the borders will have a very felt effect here in the county. We’re just going to feel it in the construction trades and in hospitality. It’s going to be harder to take up the slack as we lose some of these workers, and you can feel the pressure. It’s going to be uncomfortable.”
Recent ICE raids in Avon, at the base of Beaver Creek ski area, and April 30 in Aspen, where eight people were arrested, are creating an environment of fear in the immigrant community, both legal and illegal, activists say.
“It’s almost like it’s become militant against the immigrant in our state,” said Debbie Marquez, a local restaurant owner and a Democratic National Convention Committee member, who laments 2006 state legislation aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration by requiring papers to receive certain state services, as well as heightened cooperation between local police and federal enforcement agents. “If we had some leadership from our state Legislature, then we could change the tone.”
Danielle Short, human rights program director for the American Friends Service Committee and a founding member of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, agreed that the state’s anti-illegal immigration laws have increased the level of fear and that the state-level debate needs to be toned down.
“The situation in employment has been a really big issue, the fact that as a state we feel pressured by the rhetoric of a very small minority to pass this package of bills (in 2006) that really tied up the state’s economy,” Short said. “It’s all trying to make a point and show the small minority that we’re doing something, when the real issue is at the federal level, where we need comprehensive immigration reform.”
Short said her organization has been carefully monitoring the current push in the Legislature for a guest-worker program, which she said is not a good long-term solution for labor shortages in places like Eagle County.
“We have grave concerns about that as a solution because historically guest-worker programs have created the conditions for terrible exploitation,” Short said of the bill that prompted Republican Rep. Douglas Bruce’s now-infamous “illiterate peasants” comment on the House floor.
The border and internal enforcement crackdown and the flagging U.S. economy have dampened the morale of immigrant workers, reducing the amount of monetary remittances back home and simply making crossing the border no longer worth the effort. And that’s not easing labor shortages in mountain-resort areas or reducing the level of anti-immigrant rhetoric, Marquez said.
She cites the success of a new Human Rights Commission established by the Portland, Ore., city council in January as the type of model some Colorado communities may want to explore.
“Instead of ignoring or condemning the issue, come up with ways to create a welcoming environment for the immigrant community,” Marquez said. “How can we make them feel part of our neighborhoods and society and not be hiding and afraid? It may not fly where Doug Bruce lives, but it may work elsewhere.”