County officials explore local effects of immigration reform

by Nelson Harvey, Special to the Aspen Daily News

How will immigration reform legislation affect low-wage workers in Aspen? Will it change the mix of seasonal employees who staff area ski hills every winter? And will small local businesses like restaurants be able to take advantage of temporary worker programs introduced under the bill?

Those were just a few of the questions that members of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners had on Tuesday for Sarah Hughes, deputy chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. She was in town with an update on the sprawling immigration reform package that Bennet is sponsoring as a member of the “Gang of Eight” coalition in the U.S. Senate.

The proposed bill would create a 10-year path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million immigrants now in the U.S. illegally, and would require them to pay fines and undergo background checks before achieving a so-called “registered provisional immigrant” status that shields them from deportation.

Over five years, the bill would make the national employment verification system “E Verify” mandatory for all employers, and would introduce “biometric” data like fingerprints or photos into the E Verify database to prevent people from working with stolen documents.  

The bill also would pump billions of dollars into beefing up border security, including fencing, technology and personnel. That focus could be key to shoring up Republican support, Hughes said.

“This is a border security bill, and previous bills didn’t make the attempts that this does in securing our borders,” she noted. “Another challenge is that people come into the country with appropriate documentation, and they just don’t leave. This [bill] creates a system of entry and exit documentation.”

Commissioner Rachel Richards asked Hughes whether bringing the thousands of illegal immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley into the legal labor market could drive down wages for legal residents here, by increasing the supply of labor and making it safer for employers to hire immigrants willing to work for less.

“We have some of our biggest challenges here with the needs of low- to mid-income residents,” she said. “At what point does this start to undermine the workers who have managed to get [from $11 an hour] up to $14 an hour?”

Richards also wondered whether legalizing so many immigrants at once could lead to a sharp increase in demand for public welfare benefits like food stamps, but Hughes said immigrants on the 10-year path to legal status couldn’t apply for such benefits until they were fully legal. 

Hughes also argued that eliminating the illegal labor market, in which immigrant workers are often exploited and underpaid, would likely bring wages up overall, and would prevent some companies from undercutting their competition by hiring illegal workers.

“Often, we hear stories about people being able to out-bid another employer by hiring illegal workers,” she said. “Putting people above the board does a lot to increase wages.” 

Commissioner Steve Child asked Hughes whether the proposed immigration bill would affect the thousands of seasonal immigrants from southern hemisphere countries like Brazil and Australia who pour into Aspen in the winter to work for the Aspen Skiing Co.

Hughes said some of Colorado’s ski areas have stopped using existing guest worker programs because they are dysfunctional, or require too much investment in workers who may quit at any time.

To remedy that, the proposed immigration bill would introduce a work visa that’s valid for three years and is portable between jobs. That visa could apply to employees like foreign ski instructors, Hughes said, who come to Aspen to teach visiting international tourists in their native languages. 

The bill would create guest worker programs for various industries and would put caps on the number of guest workers allowed to emigrate in order to preserve jobs for U.S. citizens who want them. 

“When it comes to the construction trades, the cap is lower than it is in agriculture,” Hughes said. “The cap is meant to be low enough that it put Americans back to work in areas where there are Americans to do those jobs and tasks.”

Hughes told the BOCC that the immigration bill could come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate by the end of this week. That would propel the legislation to the House of Representatives in July, and it could land on President Obama’s desk by September.

The last attempt at wholesale immigration reform in 2007 hit opposition on both sides of the political aisle. Anti-immigrant groups on the right denounced any path to citizenship as “amnesty,” and labor unions on the left argued that the bill could depress wages for American workers.

This time around, to keep the legislation from failing at the final moment, the members of the “Gang of Eight” coalition have been soliciting support from a huge range of constituencies: immigrants rights groups, the high tech industry, large agricultural growers, farm worker unions and labor unions, to name a few. 

“It has the support of the chamber of commerce, but also the AFL-CIO,” Hughes said, referring to the prominent labor union. “We have the big players in ag and the farm workers … If we can get over this hump, there is real hope that we can move forward and tackle other difficult issues in this bi-partisan manner.”