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Posted: February 01, 2010

State of the state: Labor

Undocumented workers and business gets personal

Mike Cote

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While promoting her book, "Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America," Denver journalist Helen Thorpe says businesspeople have shared their thoughts on illegal immigration and the conflicting ideals of compassion and compliance they've struggled with as employees.

At one event, a woman in the food service industry whom Thorpe described as "very conservative" was moved to tears.

"She didn't want to hire illegal immigrants," Thorpe said. "But she had people on her payroll who turned out to have names that didn't match their Social Security numbers, and she had grown really fond of them and dependent on them. They were reliable workers. It was incredibly painful for her to have to deal with the fact that they were not here legally."

Thorpe's book could take on a greater resonance if immigration arises as a campaign issue in the state elections this year, especially now that her husband, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, is running to replace fellow Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter. One chapter of the book is based on an interview with former Colorado congressman and outspoken immigration foe Tom Tancredo.

Thorpe has seen the issue from both sides, through the lives of the girls and families she portrayed in her book and through her husband's business background. She writes extensively in the book about the fatal shooting of a Denver police officer in 2005 by an undocumented worker who was an employee of a restaurant owned by Hickenlooper's company.

Hickenlooper had placed his restaurant interests in a trust by the time of the hire, but that didn't stop him from facing public criticism. (Raúl Gómez García was convicted of killing Officer Kelly Young and sentenced to 80 years in prison in 2006.)

For reform to work, it needs to consider the needs of employers, Thorpe said.

"Thinking of the employer as a bad person with immoral intentions who must be punished, going into it from that point of view, I think is a misreading of the situation," she said. "I think employers are generally well intentioned for the most part."

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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