Immigration experts gather in Aspen to push reform

by Nelson Harvey, Special to the Aspen Daily News

At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, just as about 150 people were settling into their seats at the Roaring Fork Valley Immigration Forum in the basement ballroom of the St. Regis hotel, a woman named Alicia was in Basalt, cleaning houses.

Alicia is an undocumented immigrant from Latin America. She came to the U.S. 25 years ago, and has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for more than a decade, working as a housekeeper, baby-sitter, and caretaker.

Alicia has two sons who she brought to the U.S. as children, and a daughter, born here, who is a U.S. citizen. In 2005, one of Alicia’s sons was deported during an immigration raid on the body shop where he worked in Denver. He’s now living in Mexico, waiting for his 10 year bar to entry to expire so that he can move north again.

Meanwhile, Alicia’s daughter is petitioning to win her mother permanent residency. Once she’s legal, Alicia hopes to file a petition on behalf of her other son, who is still living illegally in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Alicia’s story — the family separation, the Byzantine complexity, the waiting — is precisely what attendees at the immigration forum in Aspen on Monday had gathered to discuss.

Organized by the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) and the National Immigration Forum, the event featured speakers from across the political spectrum advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, and specifically for the bill now under consideration in the U.S. Senate.

“We all know someone who came from another country, and our families all have these stories,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. His group has been a leading advocate for the 900-page bipartisan bill drafted by the so-called “gang of eight,” a group of U.S. senators that includes Colorado’s Michael Bennet.

The bill would increase border security while creating a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million people now in the U.S. illegally. It would create a “registered provisional immigrant” (RPI) status open to illegal residents who do not have criminal records. Applicants would have to pay a $2,000 penalty and would be granted the ability to work legally in the U.S. After 10 years, they could apply for permanent residency.

The bill would also make the federal employment verification system E-Verify mandatory for all U.S. employers within four years, and would set a goal of achieving near-complete security at several high-traffic crossing points along the U.S.–Mexico border.

Aside from giving a human face to some of those now in the U.S. illegally, much of Monday’s forum in Aspen was dedicated to making the economic case for a revamped immigration policy.

“We have two signs at the border,” said Noorani. “One says ‘no trespassing,’ and the other says ‘help wanted.’” Latino immigrants, he said, often take jobs harvesting vegetables, cleaning houses, or doing other work that American citizens aren’t lining up to do.

“In the hospitality industry, we have hard work to do,” said Warren Klug, general manager of Aspen Square Condominium Hotel in Aspen. “These are hard jobs!”

 Emily Chaplin/Special to the Aspen Daily News
Mark Shurtleff (far right), former Utah attorney general, answers a question during the Roaring Fork Valley Immigration Forum at the St. Regis on Monday. Shurtleff participated in a discussion panel titled “The Reality of The Current Immigration System,” moderated by Steven Wickes (far left), former director of the society of fellows and moderator at the Aspen Institute. Also participating in the panel were Ali Noorani (second from left), executive director of the National Immigration Forum, and immigration attorney Ann Allott.

Klug said that at his hotel, he doesn’t receive enough applications from U.S. citizens to fill all open positions.

“If we did, those people would be working for us,” he said. “The 11 million people are not going to go away. If they did, many of our industries would be paralyzed and out of business.”

Klug also relayed a story about a former hotel employee’s son who was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child, excelled in public schools, but was unable to attend college because of the out-of-state tuition rates that undocumented immigrants had to pay until recently.

Mark Doms, the undersecretary for economic affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce, also gave a presentation in which he attempted to dispel the notion that illegal immigrants are taking the jobs of American citizens.

Between 1970 and 2010, he said, the number of foreign-born people in the U.S. grew by 30 million, but the U.S. economy also created about 60 million jobs during that period.

Doms also noted that immigrants start 28 percent of new businesses, even though they account for just 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Other panelists described a U.S. immigration system overwhelmed in recent decades by the flood of migrants — many of them from Latin America — who have entered the U.S. in search of a better life.

“We’ve been granting 1 million green cards every year since 1950, even though our immigrant population has grown hugely,” said Ann Allot, a Denver-based immigration attorney. “It’s like the green card lady only has a size 10 dress, but she’s grown to a size 20, and it’s really ugly.”

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, brought a law-and-order perspective to the forum, arguing that immigration reform was necessary to identify criminals now in the country illegally, and to encourage immigrants to communicate and cooperate with law enforcement rather than stay in the shadows.

“I have a different perspective, but come to the same conclusion,” he said. “Law enforcement would be greatly aided by comprehensive immigration reform.”

Some critics of illegal immigration made their voices heard at the forum.

“I want to know what’s being done for the millions of Americans here who still can’t find work,” said Dave Johnson, a resident of Carbondale. “These days, you go to apply for a job in Carbondale and Glenwood, and they ask you if you speak Spanish. That’s not right!”

In response, Noorani noted that a portion of the fee that employers now pay to secure foreign worker visas goes toward training American workers in science and engineering. And former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who also spoke at the forum, described a guest worker program he helped to create which required employers to advertise their jobs extensively to American workers before hiring immigrants.

The immigration reform bill is now being marked up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. A full Senate debate is expected in June, and the bill could move to the House of Representatives later this summer.

“Our window is between now and September or October,” said Noorani, “until Washington gets distracted by the next shiny light.”