A look at how our broken immigration system affects Colorado—and how things could come into focus in the near future.
During the past year, Colorado has worked its way to the center of the country’s ongoing immigration debate, a rather impolite discussion about the mismatch between what the federal government says our immigration laws are, how those laws are enforced, and how states must deal with the resulting realities. As the state with the 17th-highest population of immigrants in America, we may not rival Texas or California or Florida in sheer numbers, but with a senator who’s helping shape immigration reform, a university that defied the state Legislature on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, a top 10 ranking for young immigrants seeking status, and a diverse economy that relies in part on foreign workers, the eyes of the country are yet again turning toward the Centennial State. • Over the course of several months, we spoke with business leaders, educators, advocacy groups, politicians, attorneys, immigrants, and undocumented immigrants to find out how this complex issue affects people along the Front Range. And, through an exclusive survey of 400 Denverites done in partnership with market research firm Resolution Research, we heard from you. The results of those conversations—as well as the outcomes of our immigration survey—unfold on the following pages.
In the News
Bennet’s Big Doings
Colorado’s junior senator is no longer playing small ball when it comes to immigration reform.
Over the past 30 minutes, the airy space of the 5th Sun Cafe & Lounge at the corner of Speer and Federal boulevards has become claustrophobic. More than 100 people—90 percent of them from the Latino community—have streamed into the now-crowded restaurant for a 12:30 p.m. presser with Senator Michael Bennet. The throng is mostly in a jovial mood, but it’s hard to ignore the key words and phrases—“racists,” the “trigger,” “unacceptable,” “not a crime”—that hang heavily in the air.
Although he was featured in a New York Times column for being one of only three Democratic senators to vote no on Obama’s fiscal cliff deal, Bennet has more recently been newsworthy for his inclusion in a high-profile group of bipartisan senators who put forth a framework for immigration reform. The so-called Gang of Eight—Senators Charles Schumer, John McCain, Dick Durbin, Lindsey Graham, Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake, and Bennet—released its four-page outline on January 28. The group of concerned citizens at 5th Sun is here to listen to Bennet’s first Colorado-based speech since the senators’ plan became public.
The framework, which began receiving blowback from Republicans within hours of its release, calls for, among other things, a “tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants” that is contingent upon a more secure border; an effective employment verification system to bring an end to the hiring of unauthorized workers; and an improved process for admitting future workers to serve the country’s workforce needs. The group of senators hopes to move its framework through the Judiciary Committee by spring and onto the Senate floor by summer.
That may be a long shot. Early objections to the plan could sink it, as could any number of suggested alterations the original gang members have said they would oppose. Today, gruff opposition from the Latino community—which abhors the “trigger,” the provision that says a path to citizenship can only commence once the leaky border is secured—is another example of resistance that could derail the effort.
Bennet was one of the final additions to the Gang of Eight and one of the last signatories on the plan. It was Bennet’s Colorado Compact, a state-level effort promoting reasonable conversation about immigration issues, that gave him the credibility to join the group in mid-December 2012. “When I got this job in 2009,” Bennet says, “I began traveling all over the state, and the topic of immigration reform just kept coming up from different people in different ways.” In talking with peach growers, cattle ranchers, ski resort operators, and high-tech business owners, Bennet found that everyone was discussing immigration issues, but that none of those people were talking to one another. The senator thought creating a compact—he admits he stole the idea from Utah, which did something similar in 2010—might allow him to get disparate groups of Coloradans into one room to hear one another’s points. “The initial purpose was to move out of the political wasteland that is immigration reform and just talk,” Bennet says.
Those talks—more than 200 in all—led to the release of a six-principle document on December 10, 2012, that reads very much like an early draft of the Gang of Eight’s plan. “This state is complicated when it comes to immigration,” Bennet tells those at 5th Sun. “The Colorado Compact was useful in our discussions in Washington.”
But no matter how compelling Bennet’s compact is, the Constitution says immigration is a federal responsibility—and Bennet sees cause for optimism at that higher level. “There is bipartisan interest in the Senate in addressing immigration,” he says. “I think it’s genuine. Both parties believe we are creating a self-inflicted wound by not fixing this. Now we have to see if there is the will to do just that.”
5280 Immigration Survey
5280 partnered with Denver-based Resolution Research, a market research firm specializing in qualitative and quantitative research designed to gather market intelligence and opinions, to conduct our immigration survey. You can view the survey in its entirety at 5280.com. Resolution Research provides online panels; telephone, online, and social media surveys; focus groups; ethnography studies; clinical trials; mock juries; bulletin boards; and more. For more information or to participate in paid panels, visit resolutionresearch.com.
Q&A: Laura Lichter
The local immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association on the difficulties of legal immigration, the punitive nature of our system, and her clients’ lives.
Many Americans say they’re in favor of immigration if people would just “do it the right way.” What don’t we understand about legally immigrating to the United States?
You’ll often hear people talk about “getting in line.” What many Americans might not realize is for the vast majority of the world’s population, there is no such thing as a line to get into the United States. And even for those people who do have a line they can enter, the waiting period is so long—years, even decades—that it makes rational planning, by businesses and families, practically impossible.
What is the easiest way to enter the United States legally?
The easiest way to come to the United States is as a tourist—if you can prove that you’re actually planning to just be here as a tourist (the law presumes you’re actually trying to immigrate). But you mean to live here permanently? The “ease” with which a person can come to this country as a green card holder will typically depend on factors that came into being long before the intent to emigrate. If a person wants to emigrate in an employment-based category, then the ease, or difficulty, of that process will depend on the person’s education and training. If a person wants to come to the United States in a family-based category, then the length of that process will depend on the identity of the petitioning relative. Some categories, like the siblings of adult U.S. citizens, have waiting periods of many years; others, like the spouses, parents, and children of U.S. citizens, have no waiting periods at all, and the person is only delayed by the amount of time it takes to process the paperwork.
How difficult is it for people to become legal residents after they have entered illegally?
It is exceptionally difficult, and sometimes impossible. All of the more common routes to residency, involving sponsorship by a family member or prospective employer, generally require entry after inspection at the border, maintenance of a lawful status, and no employment without authorization. Without meeting those requirements, a green card applicant simply doesn’t qualify. He or she is faced with the prospect of leaving the country and applying for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate abroad. But in many cases, that departure will trigger a “bar” to returning, based on the amount of time previously spent without status in the United States.
It’s true that some people are able to obtain status despite having evaded inspection. But those paths are always more difficult to obtain, generally requiring some demonstration of unusual hardship or victimization. For example, some people who have been in the country unlawfully for 10 years or more, and who have clean criminal records, might be able to remain here, and obtain residency in removal proceedings, if they can demonstrate a high and unusual level of hardship to immediate family members with status. Others might obtain green card status through a grant of asylum, which requires showing that they face persecution in their home countries. And still others might obtain residency based on having been victims of domestic violence or other serious crimes. But these are the exceptions.
In broad terms, how has U.S. immigration policy changed over the past 30 years?
It has become more punitive. It has become more focused on enforcement and detention. The opportunities for the exercise of discretion have narrowed, or become burdened with more stringent standards. It has become a system where it’s increasingly difficult for someone who didn’t necessarily follow all of the rules to “get back on track” by showing that they, nevertheless, are worthy candidates for residency.
Describe your typical client.
They come from all over the world and speak a multitude of languages. They are children and great-grandparents. They have advanced degrees; they have elementary school educations. Some have never had an issue with immigration and want to make sure they never do. Others have made mistakes but now want to fix their papers, even if that process comes with substantial risk. The one thing they all have in common is that they have all developed abiding ties to this country—and they will put a lot of work into making those ties legally recognized.
Legislation Watch 2013: Immigration-related issues to look for at the state level.
The Colorado Asset Bill
The seventh version of this controversial piece of legislation—which makes Colorado’s undocumented immigrant students eligible for in-state tuition—passed through the Legislature earlier this year. At press time, the bill was awaiting Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature.
Rollbacks to SB90
Numerous Colorado immigrants’ rights groups are working to introduce legislation that would curtail the link between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Activists, such as the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and the Colorado Progressive Coalition, are adamant that SB90’s “show me your papers” provision creates more problems than it solves, including instilling a fear of local police officers—who often just want to help—and using extraordinarily large amounts of taxpayer funds (about $13 million annually) to enforce it.
Illegal Immigrants and Colorado Driver’s Licenses
Campaigns by local groups such as Rights for All People and Driver’s Licenses for All have failed to garner the necessary support in recent years. But immigrants’ rights groups say they will look to support such a measure—a version of which passed in Illinois in January and is also law in states such as New Mexico and Washington—again in 2013.
60 percent of respondents said they did not know Colorado has had a similar law to Arizona’s “show me your papers” law since 2006—four years before the passage of Arizona’s SB1070.
Colorado’s young undocumented immigrants are taking advantage of Obama’s controversial executive order.
Ana c. says she finally feels like she belongs to a country. Soft-spoken yet opinionated, with wavy black hair that falls just below her shoulders, the 20-year-old has lived in the United States—in Texas for three months and in Colorado, currently in Aurora—since she was three years old, but that doesn’t mean she has always felt welcome. Undocumented immigrants like Ana often spend their youths growing up in the shadows.
Ana’s parents entered the country legally—with Ana and her sisters in tow—but didn’t return to Mexico when their tourist visas expired. Her parents found more opportunities here and wanted to create the best possible future for their children. Ana has no memory of the Mexican state of Chihuahua where she was born.
Ana learned she was undocumented in the third grade but says she didn’t fully understand what that designation meant until high school, when college scholarship offers began rolling in. Regis University, Benedictine University, and Metropolitan State University of Denver presented financial incentives that Ana had to pass up because undocumented immigrants cannot receive state or federal aid for higher education. “I realized then,” she says, “that this is what it’s like to be undocumented.”
Ana’s newfound sense of belonging came courtesy of a controversial executive order issued in June 2012 by President Barack Obama. Dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the policy targets young individuals in Ana’s situation. DACA allows qualifying undocumented immigrants—those who have been in the country since they were under the age of 16, were less than 31 years old on June 15, 2012 (when the policy was announced), and haven’t been convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors—to remain in the country legally for two years (after which point the temporary status can be renewed). The policy allows for a work permit and other documents that have previously been off-limits, such as a driver’s license. To apply, applicants must be at least 15 and be in school, have graduated high school or hold a GED, or have honorably served in the military.
Obama announced DACA while campaigning for re-election, ultimately scoring points with the country’s large and growing Hispanic population (after deporting illegal immigrants in record-high numbers in his first term). For advocates, DACA was a critical win for the estimated 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, often speak English better than their native tongues, are familiar with American laws and history, and are assimilated into American culture. Yet because of decisions made by their parents, they’re prevented from becoming productive members of U.S. society. “We’re here to work,” Ana says, “to help this country be great.”
Ana is one of Colorado’s many undocumented immigrants who has leapt at the opportunity DACA offers. As of January 17, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received 8,152 deferred action applications from Colorado, ranking the state 10th in the nation for such applications—even though Colorado does not rank among the top 10 states with the highest undocumented populations. An October Immigration Policy Center analysis found that Colorado has 15,848 individuals currently eligible for DACA, and a total of 33,448 who could be eligible (once they come of age or enroll in school).
DACA is discretionary, however, and eligibility does not guarantee approval. And at $465, the application is expensive. It’s also complex: Applicants must prove that they have lived continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007, and that they were physically present in the country on June 15, 2012. That’s a lot of paperwork—things like school records, phone bills, anything to prove an established life here—to produce. But applicants across the state have deemed it worth the effort—and the risk.
The irony of obama’s deferred action plan is that it’s a government policy, and most undocumented immigrants have spent years intentionally avoiding contact with the government. With deportation as a near-constant threat, many people without paperwork believe it’s too dangerous to go to a parent-teacher conference at a public school, much less fill out government forms admitting to being here illegally. Applying to DACA requires faith in the government—even if there are no guarantees, and even if it means potentially exposing older family members who aren’t eligible for DACA to even further vulnerability.
“You’re sort of raising your hand at the government and saying ‘Hi, I’m over here,’ ” says Paul Kyed, a Denver attorney who assisted DACA applicants on a pro bono basis at Holland & Hart. Because the application is so arduous, many applicants have sought assistance from immigration attorneys or from local organizations like the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), and Together Colorado.
Abbie Johnson, an attorney with RMIAN, says what surprised her most about DACA is how quickly young people have jumped to apply. She says that even after explaining that DACA is not a path to residency or citizenship, that there are no guarantees and indeed there are risks, the response from potential applicants is almost always the same: This is something I’ve been waiting for. Even though it’s not perfect and even though it’s not a permanent solution, it’s an opportunity and I’m going to grab it with two hands.
DACA may be a miracle for some, but not everyone loves the policy. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for strict immigration policies, has called it a “backdoor amnesty” program that rewards legal wrongdoing. There are also concerns that the policy weakens the economy by flooding it with workers.
In Colorado, state Representative Brian DelGrosso, a Republican, says DACA is too new to judge its impacts locally, but he’s skeptical of its merits. DelGrosso also opposed the ASSET bill, legislation introduced for the seventh time in the state Legislature in January, which ultimately passed and grants in-state tuition to undocumented students who’ve attended Colorado high schools for at least three years—and graduated. He argues it’s unfair to American citizens who have to pay full out-of-state tuition, and that neither the ASSET bill nor DACA solves the broader problem of insufficient jobs. Under DACA, he says, “There is more of an ability to get a job, but that still doesn’t guarantee that there’s going to be a job.”
For Ana C.—and the thousands of other Colorado DACA applicants—it’s about possibility. They know the president’s executive order offers no guarantees, but they’ll take what they can get—and right now, that’s two years’ time to feel like they have a home. “I finally feel like a normal person, which is bittersweet,” says Ana, who has been granted DACA relief. “It’s sad that I have to have that permit to feel like a normal person in the United States. But it’s also sweet because I don’t have to fear being deported.” —Rachel Cernansky
Leading the Charge
Why Metropolitan State University of Denver didn’t wait for permission to help Colorado students.
Stand in the middle of its campus and you’ll quickly see that Metropolitan State University of Denver is different from other Front Range universities. Although the energy that often permeates college campuses floats in the air, the typical carefree vibe is noticeably muted. That’s because MSU Denver serves a 23,500-strong student body that skews older, more diverse, more homegrown, and, on the whole, more educationally marginalized than those students at the state’s more traditional universities.
It was with that student body in mind that, in October 2011, MSU Denver president Dr. Stephen Jordan asked the university’s board of trustees an important question: What can we do if the state Legislature once again fails to pass the ASSET bill in 2012?
Jordan has served as MSU Denver’s president since 2005, but the institution’s interest in the passage of the ASSET bill—legislation that would make Colorado’s undocumented immigrant students eligible for resident tuition—predates even his tenure. “Metro State was the only higher education institution in the state to support the first iteration of the ASSET bill way back in 2002,” explains Dr. Luis Torres, deputy provost for academic and student affairs. “It was—and still is—our position that we are teachers, and we want to educate our community.”
In answer to Jordan’s question, the board responded that if the Legislature was unable to pass the ASSET bill—which became a reality in April 2012—MSU Denver itself would find a legal way to help what it considered to be the most educationally underserved population of students in Colorado. On June 7, 2012, less than two months after the ASSET bill died, MSU Denver’s board voted 7-1 to approve a tuition rate designed for undocumented immigrants living in Colorado. On the surface, the plan appeared to violate Colorado state law and immediately garnered unfriendly attention from state lawmakers. But Jordan and the board stood firm, explaining how, in their view, the rate did not breach laws that bar illegal immigrants from receiving state or federal subsidies for education.
According to Torres, the discounted tuition rate requires undocumented students, who were previously only allowed to attend the university as out-of-state students, to pay the in-state tuition rate and student fees, plus payments that cover the taxpayer subsidies a normal in-state student would receive. In short, the university’s position was that it simply couldn’t feel good about up-charging students who had graduated from Colorado high schools and whose families had paid at least some tax dollars into the state’s coffers. “Plus, Colorado had already invested about $80,000 each into some of these kids’ K–12 public educations,” Jordan says. “Why wouldn’t we want to make higher education affordable for them?”
Detractors say plans like MSU Denver’s—as well as similar ideas, like the ASSET bill—simply don’t make sense given the fact that if they do graduate, these undocumented immigrants cannot be legally employed in the United States. Other critics say giving noncitizens discounts and making an American citizen, a kid from, say, Oregon, pay out-of-state tuition is laughably unfair. Former congressman and Rocky Mountain Foundation founder Tom Tancredo has even looked into suing the university for its policy. “I wanted to file suit, but we needed a plaintiff,” Tancredo says. “Six or seven kids responded to an ad I’d placed in the paper—they all had a case—but when our attorneys told them what we wanted from them, they were afraid to go forward because of possible retaliation. And the thing is, I couldn’t tell them they weren’t right to be afraid.”
MSU Denver’s progressive—if controversial—tuition practices in 2012 were reinforced earlier this year when, as predicted, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature passed 2013’s version of the ASSET bill. “It was always our preference to have a legislative solution to this issue,” Jordan says. “We’d rather this not be limited to students at MSU Denver—but we couldn’t wait any longer.”
72 percent of respondents said they either completely disagree or somewhat disagree with MSU Denver’s tuition rate for illegal immigrants who graduated from a
Colorado high school.
In Her Words
An open letter from an undocumented Denver high school student.
I am 17. I am a junior at Cherry Creek High School, a very white, high-performing school in Denver. And I am undocumented.
My given name is a Hispanic one, but no one calls me that. I go by an American name my parents gave me when I was young. I’m the oldest child in my family—and the only one of four siblings born in Mexico. I didn’t have a choice in coming here. My parents brought me when I was just four months old. And every single day of my life since then, I’ve struggled to figure out who I am, where I am going, and how I will get there. For me, these basic questions are not easy to answer. My parents brought me here so that I could have a better future, so that I could fulfill the “American Dream.” But is there actually an American Dream? My answer is no.
To me, the phrase American Dream has turned into a description of a lifestyle many people see as the “proper” way to live. Instead of the American Dream, I believe we should call this ideal the “Me Dream,” because that’s what can be great about America: People can decide what they want their dreams to look like. Right now, though, my dream is difficult to see. My dream, simply, is to be able to live in the United States without being scared every time I step out of my house.
If someone were to ask me where I want to go in life, I would tell them that I want to go to college to be a nurse and then get a job. But I worry that will never happen. I wish that I could have the same opportunities the other kids in my class have. They all talk about going to college, being able to go around the world to study, and visiting their family or going on vacation out of the country. But I see the other side, too: American kids not caring about their educations and quitting school. Yet, they still somehow have the nerve to say that people from Mexico are ruining their lives. What hurts me the most, though, are the stereotypes. I’ve heard teachers say things like, “Mexican girls get pregnant,” or, “They just end up working in McDonald’s.” These comments make me both sad and angry. A teacher is someone who should motivate her students to do better, not make them feel bad about themselves.
At home my dad compares me to my younger sister, an American citizen, who is in honors classes. He doesn’t understand that I didn’t get the educational opportunities she did (like enrolling in preschool) and that I don’t have the same opportunities in front of me either. It’s hard to keep doing schoolwork—keep my grades up—when there’s no reward for doing so. But I am trying.
My parents brought me here to have a great life and to be able to be better than who they were. Some kids don’t know how to appreciate what they have until it’s gone. In my case, it could all be gone in a flash, so I truly appreciate what my parents did. They’ve done what they can. I am doing what I can. But, now, so much of my future is in other people’s hands. Maybe they’re your hands.
One of Colorado’s largest industries has a serious stake in immigration reform.
Sometime this month, when the time is right, David Eckhardt will begin planting crops in the soil he has farmed for the past 30 years. On his 3,600 acres outside of La Salle, he will sow corn, pinto beans, sugar beets, wheat, alfalfa, and onions—making him a part of the nearly $40 billion Colorado agriculture industry. Eckhardt runs the farm with his father and brother and two full-time workers, as well as two other employees who work full-time from March through November. But at various times throughout the growing and harvesting seasons—and especially during the late-July onion harvest—Eckhardt Farms needs to swell its workforce to 120 field workers.
In a town of about 2,000, finding that kind of labor can be next to impossible. Even though he’s tried employing locals, Eckhardt says it just doesn’t work. He’s even tried to give work to his high school–age daughter and her friends, but after weeding 25 acres of pinto beans one summer, they said they wouldn’t choose to do it again. “It’s 100 percent true that I don’t have folks who live in town—even those who are out of work—knocking on my door asking to pop onions,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Eckhardt remembers that when he was a young kid in the 1970s, his father employed the same dependable migrant families—who traveled back and forth between Mexico and the United States depending on the season—year after year to fill the need. Back then, immigration enforcement was very different: The border was not nearly as tightly patrolled, and the penalties for multiple border crossings were much less punitive. Today, because of stricter laws that were enacted in 1996, in particular, Eckhardt must hire a crew leader, who shows up with 30 or so workers. Eckhardt pays the crew leader, who then pays his staff. “I don’t know these guys,” Eckhardt says, “but the onus is on me to make sure the crew leader has paperwork on everyone. Do I know that everyone is legal? No, but if the paperwork looks authentic…let’s just say it’s a struggle to look further when someone shows up with a Colorado driver’s license.”
In an industry that relies on unskilled labor, Eckhardt says, an immigration system that is as rigid and expensive (a seasonal agriculture worker visa, if you can get one, can run anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per worker for an employer) as the United States’ can be a huge problem. “A friend of mine down the road,” Eckhardt says, “had to leave between 10 and 12 percent of his crop in the field last year because he couldn’t find the labor to harvest it. That’s a big problem for a vegetable farmer.”
A big enough problem that Eckhardt and that farmer friend, David Petrocco of Petrocco Farms in Brighton, both took part in Senator Michael Bennet’s Colorado Compact discussions. “I’m not a big fan of amnesty,” Eckhardt says, “but you have these folks here who are productive and will do jobs others won’t. I’m an advocate of a flexible seasonal worker program: There needs to be reform that allows us to supply fresh produce to America.”
76 percent of respondents say they think Colorado employers who hire illegal immigrants should be fined.
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&A: Where 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.
Coming to America
The road to U.S. citizenship is long—but it’s worth the drive.
Like most Americans, I come from a family of immigrants. My dad was born in Russia, and all of my grandparents were from various countries in Eastern Europe. And although I’ve lived in the United States off and on since 1989, I wasn’t an American until almost three years ago.
I was born in Toronto in 1987. When I was two, my parents decided to move our family to Pennsylvania on my father’s American work visa. When my parents determined they wanted to stay long-term, they applied for, and were granted, green cards, which meant we all became lawful permanent residents of the country.
Many years later, I graduated from the University of Denver and made the decision to officially make the States my home. It had nothing to do with my roots; I am a proud Canadian. But I wanted to stop getting pulled aside by TSA for additional scans at the airport. (Really? Again? I’m Canadian!) I wanted to be able to vote. I wanted to get something in return for paying taxes. To be honest, I just thought being a U.S. citizen would make my life easier.
I’d heard the naturalization process could be tedious, but I had lived here legally for a long time. I spoke English. I’d had zero legal issues. I had a degree. I thought it’d be a breeze.
With my status—unmarried, nonmilitary—I was required to have been a lawful permanent resident for at least five years and be at least 18 to begin the process. And it is a process. First there’s the N-400 Application for Naturalization. It costs $680 just to file it and has seven pages of detailed instructions for how to fill it out. For the application itself, you must write down things you never thought you’d have to remember—from every address you called home in the past five years and every place you worked to the days and corresponding dates you spent outside the country. Yes, including that spontaneous three-day trip to Mexico you barely remember.
But that wasn’t the end. There was the fingerprinting and then the naturalization interview, during which I sat with a Department of Homeland Security officer for 30 minutes answering questions about myself and my application before taking the naturalization test. To pass, I had to answer six of 10 civics questions—Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? How many U.S. senators are there?—correctly, which I did. I was then given a time to return for my swearing in.
Nearly four months of paperwork came to an end as I stood in a room full of people and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Once it was over, I breathed a sigh of relief and then took a look around the room. As I scanned the 50-some faces—beaming husbands, mothers with tears in their eyes—I was struck by the exultation I saw. Their joy was palpable. In that moment I realized that the process I’d found bothersome, others had found to be emancipating—maybe even the best thing that had ever happened to them. Unlike me, some of my fellow citizens may have been refugees fleeing war-torn countries; some may have been trying to provide a better life for their families; still others may have been reuniting with loved ones. This was their moment, not mine. I had taken for granted how lucky I was to become an American. They had not. —Daliah Singer
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