Laboring over reform


In 1851, Hispanic shepherds ventured north from present-day New Mexico into the San Luis Valley and settled the town of San Luis. You could say they were the first Coloradans.

Just three years earlier, the quirky alpine valley had been Mexican soil, but the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo shifted the border several hundred miles southward. The aforementioned first Coloradans were likely Mexicans before the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, but the treaty granted them citizenship.

The politics of immigration reform have wavered over the intervening years, and today amnesty is something of a dirty word. After a hot economy helped attract millions of documented and undocumented immigrants alike for the last two decades, President Obama sits at a familiar crossroads.

In the early 1950s, President Eisenhower faced a similar “crisis” to that of the 1990s and 2000s. About 3 million undocumented immigrants had crossed into the U.S. from Mexico in the years before his election in 1952, thanks in large part to an unquenchable thirst for labor during World War II.

Eisenhower saw a solution in patrolling industry more than the border. Under his watch, Border Patrol and the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Services rooted out corruption in their ranks and initiated a sweeping deportation program that shipped undocumented workers not to the border by land but to Veracruz by sea.

These tactics led to a 95 percent decline in illegal immigration by 1960, accomplished with a Border Patrol consisting of 1,000 agents, a far cry from the 18,000 today, and no border wall. The plan worked because it didn’t rely on brute enforcement alone.

Later, as a new wave of Mexico-to-U.S. immigration began, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan was a pragmatist. In 1977, Reagan said undocumented immigrants were “actually doing work our people won’t do,” adding, “One thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.”

This is the third ColoradoBiz cover story on immigration reform in the past five years. Despite plenty of rhetoric, the central problems remain unsolved. Colorado took a legislative stand in 2007, new restrictions turned migrant labor off, and farmers resorted to prison labor to harvest the fall crop. Now Arizona has taken matters into its own hands by passing a controversial immigration bill into law this April.

But in other corners of the country, the seemingly immobile party lines around the argument are being redrawn. Thanks in part to the backlash generated by Arizona’s legislative move, this formerly model wedge issue is straining to stay intact under pressure. And a different, often pro-business, tone is resonating throughout the debate this time.

Gil Cisneros, president and CEO of the Lakewood-based Chamber of the Americas and a leading voice among Colorado’s Hispanic Republicans, has come down hard on his own party’s immigration hardliners in the past. His focus is on the needs of small businesses: “They’re screaming for more help.”

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One problem is a relative dearth of labor. “Several people have called me and indicated that the source of labor is not as plentiful as it used to be,” Cisneros says. “It goes back to the bracero days. Especially for agriculture and light manufacturing, it goes back to who’s going to do the work.”

Like many of his pro-business peers, Cisneros thinks it’s high time for federal immigration reform that helps domestic businesses access necessary labor. “We’re going to have to do something positive,” he says. Reform can’t be “anti-Hispanic,” he adds. “The whole world is watching. We’ve got enough strikes against us – we don’t need any more.”

The politics of the debate are rapidly evolving. Leading advisory voices from both parties have warned that continued divisive politics could lose the Latino vote for a generation. In May, several prominent national Latino evangelist leaders broke ranks with the far right in support of amnesty for the undocumented. Who knows? Pragmatism might yet supplant partisanship.

Case in point: Yuma, Colo., pop. 3,500 and “not many empty houses,” says Ralph Ebert, a retired silo manager and active city councilman.

Ebert, a lifelong Republican, doesn’t view immigration as a partisan issue. He says immigrants have kept Yuma’s economy strong while many of its high-school graduates have pursued work elsewhere.


In February, the Yuma City Council passed a resolution commending immigrants for their contributions to Yuma while pushing Congress to pass serious reform “which ensures a stable immigrant work force and enhances the economic stability and family values of rural communities.”

When Ebert moved to Yuma from Kansas in 1984, “There were maybe a dozen Mexican families,” he says. “Each class in school had one or two or three Hispanic kids. Today the grade school is about 40 percent Hispanic; the high school is 30 percent.

“In Yuma, it’s agriculture and livestock – that’s what our community is based on. Corn production and cattle production and hog production have increased in the last 20 years. We have an ethanol plant out here now. The oil and gas industry took all the extra people out. If you’re 40 years old or younger, you’re going into the oil and gas industry. That sucked up any extra labor we had, and that’s why the Mexicans are here – because of phenomenal labor demand.

“Our economy in Yuma County is vibrant and alive,” Ebert says. “I haven’t seen that in other communities around us. We’re hoping they can get something done in Washington so we can get our community back in line and be a real community. If you’re not going to be open to immigration, you’re going to destroy your economy. New blood is what keeps this country going. New blood is what keeps this country vibrant and alive and moving.”

In the produce business, “alive and moving” means finding people to do hard seasonal work for $9 or $10 an hour. Charlie Talbott, fifth-generation co-owner of Talbott Farms in Palisade, says high unemployment “opened the floodgates” for local applicants this year. In years past, migrant workers on H2A visas have done the lion’s share of the work in the family’s orchards and vineyards.

The H2A process, which requires a company to advertise positions locally before it brings in foreign workers, is “burdensome and somewhat challenging,” Talbott says. “We have to hire a citizen who walks in looking for a job. It doesn’t matter if he’s on parole with a criminal record; we still have to hire him. What may well happen – and is likely to happen based on past experience – is these people will show up and work a day or a week or two weeks, and then never show up again. Meanwhile, we’ve lost that H2A employee who would have been with us for the whole season.”

Talbott says H2A “is not set up to be a viable program,” and legislative changes could potentially make it untenable for Talbott Farms in the future. The self-described “solidly conservative” Talbott’s advice to lawmakers in D.C.: “We desperately need a viable, workable guest worker program. It could solve so many issues, from the people who are already here, to border security.”

Labeling amnesty for the undocumented “a big mistake,” Talbott is not optimistic. “I hold out very little hope for a solution. There are divisions within both parties as to how this should be solved. I’m certainly not impressed by our politicians.”

Beyond the farms

Agriculture is far from the only major industry in Colorado intertwined with the politics of immigration reform. The state’s tourism industry, with its twin peak seasons, has long employed immigrants of all kinds to keep the gears moving. Unlike the case with agriculture, however, job-seekers are turning to tourism-oriented companies for work in this era of high unemployment.
Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga says the company is not relying on H2B visas for as many workers as it did in the past, in large part because the practice had become increasingly burdensome and unreliable.

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“This past season, we hired dramatically fewer international employees – about 70 percent lower than in previous years,” she says. “That was because of the cap (on H2Bs) and economic conditions.”

Foreigners represented about 4 percent of Vail’s work force last season, down from about 7 percent in 2008-09, largely ski instructors who are fluent in specific languages. “Vail Resorts has a long history of hiring people from all over the world because they really contribute to the international flavor of our resorts,” Ladyga says.

Regardless, Ladyga says she expects far fewer workers with visas in the coming season. “We shifted to much more aggressive recruiting domestic employees than we had in the past,” she says. Instead of looking beyond the borders, Vail Resorts aggressively recruited employees from summer hotspots like Martha’s Vineyard and the national parks, utilized social media and other new technology. “We were fully employed. The strategy worked.”

Despite the relative ease that a ski resort can attract citizens to fill jobs when compared to a farm, no one would dispute that hotels and restaurants and second homeowners in just about every Colorado resort town rely on immigrants as housekeepers and dishwashers and construction workers. And in Denver, the first new entrant into the cab fold in 15 years, Union Taxi, was founded last year by its nearly 300 driver-owners, most of them immigrants from Africa.

“My personal opinion is Colorado’s hospitality industry and specifically its restaurant industry could not function without immigrants – not just immigrants from Mexico, but immigrants from other countries as well,” says Mike Miller, owner of Basil Doc’s Pizza, a chain with four locations in Denver. “At the end of the day, there needs to be more visas.”

Miller also advocates fees for both employees and employers and streamlined processes. “What we have right now is just not working,” he says, adding that deportation is not a realistic option. “What happens to the vacuum created when they’re gone? How do we take care of that segment of every industry?”

Jeffrey Zax, economics professor at CU-Boulder, says there are still economic “winners and losers” when it comes to immigration – simply put, employers and consumers win while low-skill domestic labor loses – but rules of the game have changed. In the wake of the economic crisis,

“We have a bigger supply of domestic low-skill labor than we thought,” Zax says. Amid high unemployment, however, citizens aren’t rejoining the agriculture work force. “I think it’s a real puzzle – why aren’t they taking the jobs the Mexicans are taking?”

While agriculture and tourism get plenty of attention for their dependence on immigrant labor, technology has long depended on foreigners to not only fill jobs but create them. “For me, the immigration story that is most important is on the high-skill end of the spectrum,” Zax says. “We are not producing the amount of high-skill workers that we should. Our scores are not particularly competitive internationally.”

The contributions of immigrants to technology and innovation are vast and undeniable. Tech heavyweights Google, Yahoo and Intel all had at least one foreign-born founder. Last year, the Small Business Administration released a study that found that one in six U.S. high-tech companies had a foreign-born founder.

A serial entrepreneur before he went into politics, Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder County Democrat, sees any low-skill jobs lost to immigrants to be far outweighed by the jobs lost by citizens due to high-skill jobs landing elsewhere.

“Our immigration system is destroying jobs for Americans,” he says. “There have been several instances of entrepreneurs and investors who actually want to start companies here and employ people, and we can’t even get them the paperwork to do that. My bill would correct that and make sure we use our immigration system to create jobs for Americans.”

Polis says the U.S. needs to be more welcoming of foreign-born entrepreneurs, lest they launch the next Google from Shanghai instead of Silicon Valley.

“Typically they set up shop in other countries,” he says. “This happens all the time. Sometimes they come on temporary visas, then have trouble renewing them.”

For this reason, Polis introduced H.R. 4259 in an attempt to establish the Startup Visa program. “We have gotten it into the House’s comprehensive immigration reform bill,” he says. “We haven’t seen a Senate bill yet, but the concept is mentioned in the outline of a Senate bill, and I’m hopeful that John Kerry’s language will include it in that. Absolutely I think it’s an important part of immigration reform to show it creates jobs for Americans and it helps our economy.”

“There are never enough H1B visas,” says Boulder serial entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld, who had a hand in crafting the language in Polis’ bill. “It’s extremely difficult for foreign entrepreneurs to get an appropriate visa if they want to start a company in the U.S. This is especially true for foreigners who are already here on H1B, student, or visitor visa.

“Many people come to the U.S., get educated or trained, and then return to their native country because they can’t get a visa to stay in the U.S. and start a company,” Feld says. “India and China are the two biggest recipients, but there are many cases around the rest of the world, especially in Europe.”

Founders of two companies involved in TechStars program in Boulder this summer were from other countries and have had trouble legally immigrating to the U.S. because the process is “expensive, risky and tiresome,” Feld blogged last September.

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Born in South Africa, Kimbal Musk, founder and CEO of Boulder’s OneRiot and chef-owner of The Kitchen, went to college in Canada before moving in 1995 to California, where he and his brother Elon’s startup Zip2 had secured funding. (Elon also founded PayPal.)

“The whole process was a total nightmare,” says Musk of trying to get a visa as an entrepreneur. “We could only get funding in the U.S., so we literally had to come across as illegals. We had no choice.” In 1999, the brothers sold Zip2 for $300 million. “About $100 million went to the government in taxes and when I applied for a green card, they told me to screw off. If you want to get legal as an entrepreneur, there is no way to do it.” Musk finally became a citizen when he married an American in 2001.

“In the past, the U.S. was the only game in town,” he adds. “Now China is incredibly competitive. India is incredibly competitive. The U.S. is still acting like they’re the only game in town, but they’re not. We’re in a fiercely competitive world economy, and we’re sending the best and the brightest away.”

A lot of people want to come to the U.S. to invest and create jobs, Polis says. “The program has a cap of 10,000 and I think we will blow that away.”

CU’s Zax is quick to note that “10,000 is tiny,” not nearly enough to make up for the high-skill-worker deficit the country faces. He thinks any quotas should not be industry-specific, focusing instead on the skill level of the potential immigrant.

Bipartisan plan for reform

The University of Denver’s Strategic Issues Program tackled the immigration issue last year, in part because, as program head James Griesemer notes, “This has become an issue around which there is no thoughtful civil discourse.”

In the pursuit of such thoughtful discourse, “Architecture for Immigration Reform: Fitting the Pieces of Public Policy” came out of a 2009 panel chaired by Griesemer and included Pete Coors, Polly Baca and other high-profile figures from the state’s private and public sectors. Based on panel consensus, the report offers 25 recommendations on topics ranging from border security to public services.


“The real need is to deal with the jobs,” says Griesemer, describing the status quo as “byzantine in its complexity.” Employers are “not in the business of authenticating credentials,” he adds, leading to the panel’s recommendation for a new employment identification card. “You need to get control of the jobs situation before you make people legal.” For any quotas, Griesemer says that “the numbers have to come from the states and the business community to Washington, not the other way around.”

And many social ills blamed on high immigration, legal or not, have little to do with the phenomenon. Tim Wadsworth, a sociology professor at CU-Boulder, studied the relationship between immigration and crime and found growth in new immigrant population to be inversely correlated with the homicide rate and other crime rates.

“Polls show the public sees crime as a potential negative side effect of immigration,” he says. His research found exactly the opposite to be the case.

“In the 1990s, some of the border cities experienced the largest drops in crime,” says Wadsworth, noting that the explanation for this trend is difficult to pinpoint. One explanation is a relatively low rate of physical illness in Latino communities, and stable extended families in immigrant communities might also play a part.

“People don’t immigrate randomly,” he adds. “Instead, because it takes a fair amount of resources to immigrate legally or illegally, a family is going to sink its resources in the person most likely to succeed. People are coming here to better their lives – that’s not conducive to criminal behavior. There’s real motivation to not get in trouble.”

In fact, the Department of Justice has found that illegal immigrants are about 10 times less likely to commit crimes than other U.S. residents. This seems to run counter to the logic behind Arizona’s new law requiring law enforcement to check people they suspect of illegal immigration for proof of citizenship. The law created a firestorm earlier this year, and controversy continues to smolder.

Chamber calls for Arizona boycott

The typically apolitical Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has urged its more than 2,000 members to boycott supporters of the new law in Arizona and elsewhere. Calling it “a much more aggressive approach,” Executive Director Jeff Campos says the law is a threat to public safety. “It’s a safety issue for individuals,” he says. “It’s going to cause conflict. It’s going to cause profiling.

“We think obviously this is a federal issue,” Campos says. “States are starting to take (the Arizona approach) into consideration, and that’s what I’m worried about. We are going to take a stand nationally.”

The Arizona bill has also become an issue in this year’s gubernatorial race. Republican candidate Scott McInnis immediately endorsed similar legislation in Colorado.

“The federal government has the responsibility of protecting the border. They have neglected to do that,” McInnis said during an interview with ColoradoBiz. “As a result they have put Arizona into a crisis. Our immigration policies in this country work very well as long as we enforce them. As governor of this state I would, like the governor of Arizona, insist that the federal government do what they should be doing all along.”

Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper released a noncommittal statement in early May.

“Arizona’s law is troubling, but I am not surprised states are trying to address immigration policy because Congress hasn’t,” Hickenlooper’s statement read. “People throughout the country are justified in feeling angry over the failure of the federal government to deal with this issue. We need a nonpartisan approach to solve this problem for the entire country and enforceable reform that doesn’t abridge the basic freedom of our citizens.”

John Gimple, president of Gimple Roof Engineers in Arvada, says the Arizona law is designed in part to level the playing field for businesses that employ immigrant workers.

“Even businesses that follow the law are pressured to keep wages lower in an effort to compete with others that knowingly hire illegal immigrant labor,” Gimple wrote in a column published at “Arizona’s law is aimed at cracking down on those businesses that exploit and hire illegal immigrants.”

Wake-up call for reform

Polis hopes that the controversy proves a catalyst for reform. “I think this new Arizona law has been a real wake-up call,” he says. “It’s provided momentum for the push for federal immigration reform.”

An Arizona-style bill “would be devastating for the economy in Colorado,” Polis adds. “Certainly Arizona’s actions will prolong and worsen their recession and destroy jobs for Arizona citizens. Our immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are an important part of our economy and an important part of consumer demand.”

His rationale akin to that of Polis, Cisneros labels Arizona’s law “dangerous because of the impact to trade opportunities,” while also taking a whack at those who play politics with the issue: “When I hear Colorado politicians running for office say we ought to do the same thing, I think it is asinine.”

After collaborating on an unsuccessful immigration reform bill with late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2007, Arizona Senator John McCain did an about-face on the issue in a campaign ad demanding the federal government “complete the danged fence.” But partisan fissures regarding the new law have emerged in state politics. In May, longtime Arizona State Sen. Carolyn Allen, a Republican like McCain, explained her decision to retire as resulting from her distaste for “the police state” established by the new law.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin enthusiastically endorsed the bill on the national stage, putting the blame squarely at the foot of the Obama administration. “Mr. President, do your job! Secure our borders!”

The Border Patrol doubled in size in the last decade – it’s now the largest federal agency in terms of sheer numbers – but the fattening did little to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in the dark of night. The economic crisis did a much better job of chilling illegal crossings than the boost in staffing.

And fences – long offered as linchpins to stemming illegal immigration – are partially to blame for the current situation: The now-triple fence separating San Diego and Tijuana merely pushes illegal immigration inland, and other present and future fences do nothing to address the fact that half of undocumented immigrants are not from Mexico and half originally enter the U.S. legally.

Streamlining the system and legitimizing undocumented guest workers would help push immigrants to legal ports of entry, freeing Border Patrol and other agencies to focus on the real bad guys. Considering 23 Republican senators voted for the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill in 2007, the numbers should be there for passage – that is, if politics don’t poison the well.

Here’s hoping that they don’t: It’s high time pragmatism trumps partisanship and – forget the obsolete-before-it-was-started fence – pass a danged bill.
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