Immigration: The Search For Clarity

With comprehensive immigration reform a real possibility this year, we look at how our broken system affects Colorado—and how things could come into focus in the near future.

April 2013

Behind Bars


Being undocumented isn’t a crime—but you can still go to jail for it.

Miriam was a 23-year-old wife and mother of one young son when she and her husband decided they could no longer stay in Mexico City. The lack of opportunity, the violence, the poverty. They couldn’t afford to live there any longer. They didn’t want their son growing up there. And so, in 2000, it took them three days to walk across the border; the hope and potential of the United States waited on the other side.

The family found some of the prospects it was searching for—and added another son—after settling in Colorado, but all was not well. Miriam’s husband was a violent drunk and habitual drug user. He became progressively abusive toward her. She called the police several times—a rare move for someone without legal status—and eventually found the courage to leave him two years after arriving in America. Miriam found a place where she and her boys could live together without fear. She felt at peace for the first time in many years.

Six months later, however, that all came to an end. About four months after leaving her husband, Miriam was pulled over for speeding. She was ticketed and given a date for traffic court. And then, in the midst of being a single mom and working to support her family, she missed her date in traffic court. In an attempt to make things right, Miriam went to the courthouse to reschedule her hearing—or to simply pay the fine. Instead, she was arrested for failure to appear in court. After bringing her to jail, the police began to suspect Miriam was not here legally. As required by Colorado state law SB90, the police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who picked Miriam up from jail a week later and took her to the privately run GEO Group’s Aurora ICE Processing Center, an immigration detention facility that incarcerates at least 400 people at any given time.

Forced to wear a jumpsuit, eat only when told to eat, and allowed to make phone calls to her two- and four-year-old sons only if she could pay for a phone card, Miriam felt like a common criminal. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, however, being in violation of immigration laws in the United States is not a crime. It is a civil violation, like a speeding ticket or littering. However, when an individual like Miriam is suspected of being undocumented and ends up in so-called noncriminal custody, a legal process begins that will ultimately determine if a person has the right to stay in the country. Eighty-six percent of those who must wade through this process do so without any legal representation. After all, it is a civil offense; only alleged criminals in the United States have the right to an attorney.

Miriam was one of the few fortunate enough to find a friendly face in Denver’s legal community. Mekela Goehring, an attorney and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), was teaching a know-your-rights presentation at the Aurora detention center when she met Miriam. Since 2000, RMIAN, a nonprofit, has served low-income men, women, and children in immigration proceedings, promoting knowledge of their legal rights and providing effective legal representation. “The fact that people in immigration proceedings—in many cases children—have no appointed counsel is, in my mind, one of the country’s biggest human rights issues,” Goehring says.

Like many of her fellow inmates, Miriam had no idea how to advocate for herself. She didn’t know she could ask for an individual merits hearing—a full-blown trial—instead of simply requesting “voluntary departure,” which would’ve meant accepting that she would have to leave the country. She also had no idea that being a victim of domestic violence and having helped police in prosecuting her husband offered a potential pathway to status. In fact, Goehring says many people in detention simply give up their rights to fight their cases even if they are eligible for relief from removal because detainees suffer from being separated from their families.

Miriam’s case had a happier ending. With help from RMIAN, she obtained a U visa because she had helped prosecute her husband for domestic violence. Today, Miriam has earned her GED and works with low-income families who need help accessing government services. “I eternally thanked God for giving me the opportunity to be a legal person here,” Miriam says, “and to be able to work and keep fighting for my boys.”


Q&AWhere Do Lifties Come From?

Colorado’s $3 billion ski industry churns on the labor of hundreds of seasonal, nonimmigrant workers. But the process for hiring this workforce—from places like Austria, New Zealand, and Brazil—under our current immigration system is slow and unresponsive to the whims of the U.S. economy. Melanie Mills, the president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, explains how even legal immigration is a problem for one of our state’s biggest industries: tourism.

What are the most concerning ways in which the issue of immigration has affected Colorado’s ski industry?

The regulatory process for legally hiring international seasonal nonimmigrant workers is so slow and cumbersome it is nearly impossible to use. Patchwork state requirements concerning immigration are also burdensome for businesses like ours that hire lots of seasonal workers.

How many legal foreign workers does the Colorado ski industry employ each season?

Right now, the number is very small. With U.S. unemployment high, it’s much easier to hire a full complement of seasonal workers here at home. When unemployment rates are lower, which we know they will be again, it’s a real challenge to find the employees with all the skills we need.

Does the Colorado ski industry need these foreign workers?

There is a demand for certain skill sets that foreign workers provide that are not necessarily available in the labor force here in Colorado—or elsewhere in the United States. For example, we want to hire ski instructors who speak fluent Portuguese, who can teach our Brazilian guests. We simply do not have enough U.S. workers with that combination of skiing and language skills.

Do Colorado resorts try to hire Americans for those positions?

Of course. We make every effort to hire American workers, and we fill out most of our employee ranks with terrific American employees. But certain positions, especially those involving foreign language skills, continue to go unfilled despite every effort to recruit Americans.

What do you say to those who suggest the ski industry imports labor because it’s cheaper than increasing payroll to lure American workers?

They’re completely wrong. It’s more expensive to hire internationals and get them here.

Why is the ski industry so opposed to the so-called “show me your papers” law?

Colorado ski resorts are known for their best-in-the-world guest service. It would be a real black eye for us when we’ve provided the vacation of a lifetime for a family from another country, only for them to be pulled over as they drive to the airport because they’re suspected of being in the country illegally. Laws that make international visitors feel unwelcome are a severe detriment to tourism.
Are there any specific elements the ski industry would like to see included in immigration reform?

Yes—a responsive, efficient seasonal visa program and an employer verification system that is accurate and fast, even when you’re ramping up your hiring quickly.
70 percent of respondents who are unemployed but seeking employment say illegal immigration is a huge issue that the United States must address immediately.