SNOWMASS, Colo. - Once again, a group of Western businesses wants Congress to relax federal immigration policy, so that thousands of job openings can be filled by people from other countries. But this time it's not only Western farmers desperate for people from Latin America to come north and pick the crops (HCN, 12/18/00: Troubled harvest).

Now the push to allow "guest workers" is coming from Colorado's resort region. "It's not just ski areas that would benefit. It's an issue of the Disney Worlds of the country (and) the Branson, Missouris. It's an issue everywhere" that tourism communities lack workers, says Jim Spehar, coordinator for the Rural Resort Region, a coalition of county commissioners in five Colorado counties that are home to Aspen and Vail and to enclaves for commuting workers such as Leadville and Rifle.

As the economy soared during the past decade, resorts and other businesses in their communities had a hard time finding citizens to operate ski lifts, make beds, wait tables and build golf courses. Instead, employers in the resort region, like farmers, came to depend on the cheap labor and availability of migrant workers, many of whom arrive with only temporary visas or illegally, vulnerable to arrest and deportation.

Last winter, Spehar says, 16,000 jobs in the region went unfilled, leaving short-staffed businesses scrambling in an industry that prides itself on customer service. Despite the current slump in tourist traffic, due to terrorism fears, the chronic worker shortage is expected to continue this ski season. By 2020, Spehar says, the region will be 60,000 workers short: "It's a long-term problem and it's only expected to get worse."

Looking for a long-term solution, an unlikely group of more than 100 government officials, human-service providers, employers and immigrants spent two September days at Snowmass Village's Silvertree Hotel debating the idea of a new guest-worker program, which would let immigrants stay longer than the current temporary visas allow. Employers hope that by changing federal policy, the region will have a steadier workforce.

But their idea has already drawn criticism from immigration opponents who see it as a bid by rich resorts to secure cheap immigrant labor at the expense of American workers.

As the group voted to push the idea, immigrants outside the conference room filled coffeepots and cleared away Danishes. Carlos, who asked that his last name not be used, says he came from Mexico in 1983, but has found it hard to get by in the expensive resort, where bills quickly eat up his earnings. "You're gonna make $20 in a shift," he says. "You've got to spend $20 to make it."

An end to temporary servants

Still, more migrants come, attracted by higher wages than they get back home, and by jobs that Coloradans leave unfilled. If more workers could come legally and stay longer, Spehar says, immigrants and businesses both would benefit.

Guest-worker programs aren't new. In 1942, due to labor shortages during World War II, the federal government created the Bracero Program to issue permits to Mexican farmworkers. That program lasted until 1964. Last year, Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, proposed a bill that would match Mexican workers with American farmers needing help. That proposal has been put on hold in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

"It may take a little bit different form now with closer scrutiny on immigration," says Craig's spokesman, Mike Tracy. "Everyone is going to look at any immigration reform bill in a new light."

Many of the thousands of immigrants from Latin America, West Africa and Eastern Europe already living in the resort region - Eagle, Garfield, Lake, Summit and Pitkin counties - are on temporary "H-2B" visas, the service sector's counterpart to the "H-2A" visa program that brings in farm workers. They can't stay longer than a year, and their bosses have to prove they can't find employees locally.

This winter, Vail Resorts asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service for more than 1,500 H-2B visas, an eighth of the company's expected workforce. About 200 of Aspen Skiing Co.'s expected 3,500 workers are slated to come on the same program. But for most smaller employers, says Jim Laing, vice president for human resources at Aspen Skiing Co., the temporary visa programs are too complicated, involving state and federal officials, lots of time and lots of money. Since tourist economies are seasonal, many employers say they can't wait for the federal government to issue visas. Instead, they hire illegals and don't ask too many questions.

"In my business, I spend all my time just trying to make it from month to month," says Garfield County Commissioner Walt Stowe, chairman of the Rural Resort Region, and owner of a Glenwood Springs roofing business. He sees the group's proposal as a way to normalize the dependency on foreign workers, which affects small businesses like his as much as big hotels and ski areas. "The system we've got now is faring poorly," he says. "Right now, it's a rewards program for not hiring legally."

One significant change

President Bush has signaled he is receptive to reviving some kind of guest worker program. The resort counties hope to have their proposal finalized by December and then pitch it to the next session of Congress. The group wants to leave it to Congress to decide how many guest workers can come and how long they can stay, and wants to avoid the thorny question of amnesty for workers already here illegally.

But the group is pushing for a significant change that would give guest workers new flexibility. Current programs leave workers bound like indentured servants to their employers, unable to leave unsafe or unpleasant conditions; lose your job, and you lose your visa. Under the proposed program, a guest-worker visa would belong to the worker, not the job.

Overall, the group hopes its proposal will cut down on illegal border crossings and under-the-table hiring, while increasing immigrants' wages and giving them more opportunity for health benefits and labor protection. Being a guest worker would be easier and safer than trying to cross the border illegally, and the guest workers would be on a level field with U.S. workers.

But immigration opponents fear the program would only keep wages low and attract more illegal workers. Guest workers will overstay, their families will hop the border, increasing the flow of job-seekers, and the result will be bad for U.S. workers, opponents say.

"Why are we providing cheap immigrant labor to the super rich?" asks Michael McGarry, an Aspen maintenance worker who co-founded the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform. "It's just crazy, and that's what this proposal is going to facilitate."

Supporters insist that such visa programs don't displace U.S. workers, because migrants fill jobs that locals don't want. "I don't see the American citizen coming in here asking me for a housekeeping job," says Travis Bennett, employment specialist for the Colorado Workforce Center in Frisco. "For every citizen that does that, I probably see 10 or 15 immigrant workers say that they will do that. Part of that's the language barrier. You don't have to speak English to scrub toilets."

But others say that wages, not the type of work, are the biggest turnoff for American workers. Jobs like housekeeping, which used to rely on higher pay to attract workers, have seen wages stagnate in the last several years as the immigrant workforce has grown, says Bennett. Employers who might pay a citizen $10 an hour may pay $7 to an immigrant, even one holding a visa, he says. "There's not been any wage growth there at all," Bennett says. "If I were a housekeeper, I'd be looking at something else to do."

 

David Frey writes from Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley. He is a former HCN intern.


YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Jim Spehar, Rural Resort Region, 970/256-1060;
  • Travis Bennett, Colorado Workforce Center, 970/668-5360 ext. 14.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and David Frey