A week before Labor Day, the tourist town of Jackson, Wyo., lost its labor force. Teams of federal agents and local police entered hotels and restaurants, asking dark-skinned workers for their immigration papers. Those who couldn't produce them were taken away in police cars. One group was hauled off in a horse trailer.
Within three hours, with more than half
of the 60 targeted establishments still unvisited, agents had
already netted about four times the number of suspected illegal
workers they'd expected. Overwhelmed, they
The chain-link enclosure outside the
Teton County Sheriff's Department contained 151 Mexicans - about
one-sixth of the town's Mexican population "and a young pair from
England. Numbers were inked on their forearms while their paperwork
The next day, 120 undocumented
Mexicans were on their way back to Mexico by bus and
It was the biggest immigration bust in
Wyoming's history. And, like most busts of undocumented Mexicans,
it accomplished virtually nothing. A little over a week after
leaving Jackson, all but four of the deportees were reportedly back
on the job. One restaurant worker said that after a long bus ride
in handcuffs, he spent two hours in the Ciudad Juarez jail. Then he
and some friends got into a car, drove six hours west to the
Arizona border, and headed back to the
"That raid," he said,
"it was really stupid."
The other side of the
When the man, whom I'll call Juan
Sanchez, tells me this, I am sitting at the kitchen table in his
trailer in the town of Driggs, Idaho. Hundreds of Jackson's workers
live here, across the pass, where the Teton's famously jagged
skyline is obscured by the mild, forested western slope of the
range. Only the tallest Teton, the Grand, pokes over the
In the trailer, there are enough chairs for
me, another reporter, and Juan's wife. The room is crowded. A
couple leans against the wall, alternately winding their limbs
around each other, kissing and stopping to listen to us. A teenage
boy sits with a couple of kids in front of the television. A young
man comes to the door, looks in, and leaves.
Everyone is nervous. Juan is nervous because he doesn't know us;
we're only there because a local activist he trusts told him she
trusted us. Still, he answers our questions as if we're the police.
We're nervous because we are talking in Spanish and our tape
recorder keeps going dead. If this interview doesn't work, we don't
know if we'll find any more undocumented workers who will talk to
us. After the raid, even legal Mexicans stayed away from work for a
week or more; many families were too frightened to even go to the
grocery store. But when we ask Juan if he ever considered staying
in Mexico, he looks at us like we're crazy. His wife is here, and
his three children.
And there's work. In
Jackson's classified ads, hotels and restaurants beg for
applicants. There's construction work in Driggs, which is sprouting
subdivisions the way its neighbors downvalley sprout potatoes.
There's plenty of work, if you're willing to do
After finishing the interview and telling
Juan that no, we didn't know when the next raid would be, we leave.
Up the street we meet a man I'll call José Umaûa. He has
been in Idaho for about 10 years, and has a green card and a
full-time job pouring concrete for a construction company in
Driggs. Evenings, he cleans the local slaughterhouse. Weekends, he
milks cows twice a day. With his earnings, he paid $1,000 to have
his wife, Milagro, smuggled from Tijuana into California behind a
refrigerator on a moving van. Last summer, he bought the trailer
we're sitting in.
"As soon as
I have money, I spend it," says the 30-year-old Umaûa while
his two children tumble, giggling, from sofa to floor in his warm
trailer and Milagro makes piles of fragrant chicken and tortillas
to serve the visitors. "But we never go hungry. We have to work
hard because these kids are growing. We have to grow them up."
"We make $2 to $3 a day in
Mexico. There, people work for beans and tortillas. Not meat, it's
too expensive. In Mexico, you have to work for two weeks just for a
pair of shoes."
People like Umaûa and
Sanchez are an employer's dream. The ski industry - no longer able
to fill its $6-an-hour jobs with white college kids - is soaking up
The upside of this new relationship
is that families like Juan's and José's can prosper in a way
they never could in Mexico. The tourists and local merchants
benefit, too: Beds are made quickly and well, eggs Florentine is
delivered on time. The downside is that an estimated half of the
Mexican workers in Jackson and some other resort towns are working
illegally, making them and their employers vulnerable to
Immigration and Naturalization Service raids, which, if not
effective, are at least inconvenient and embarrassing. What's more,
employers can be fined thousands of dollars for employing illegal
The hunger of ski towns for cheap,
energetic labor and the desire of the INS to uphold immigration law
make for moral ambiguities, to put it politely.
After all, the ski industry has cultivated an image that is clean,
athletic and non-seedy. We are used to illegal laborers working on
farms. Nor do they seem out of place in gambling towns, where the
opportunism and survival instincts of the visitors in many ways
mirror those of the workers. But unlike a gambling vacation, which
sells hope to people who want money, a $15,000 ski vacation sells
perfection to those who already have it. Perfection is elusive; its
gossamer threads can be strained by one foul look from a
maötre d'. Just think how the web would rupture if, upon
returning from a lobster dinner, the family found the maid with the
nice smile up against the wall being frisked by federal agents. The
ski industry's use of illegal labor breaks its own
A flood from
Joseph Greene has thought about this. But
he thinks about a lot of things. The holder of two philosophy
degrees and the author of a position paper on the inviolability of
churches as sanctuaries for refugees, Greene is a regional director
for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He oversees
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming from an almost comically bland office
complex in Denver.
About 90 resident aliens are
awarded citizenship down the hall from his office every week in
ceremonies that explode with applause and patriotism. The
ceremonies are for the winners at the immigration game. Behind the
building, a bus emblazoned with "Immigration and Naturalization
Service" stands by to ship the losers to jail, or back to
"I'm a cop," he says.
"That's my job. But I also give out immigrant benefits, so I'm also
a cop who's a schizophrenic."
As far as
regional directorships in the INS go, Greene's looks fairly easy at
first. Unlike his peers in California, Arizona and Texas, he
doesn't have thousands of undocumented Mexicans and Central
Americans playing cat-and-mouse with the Border Patrol every night.
(Last May, for example, 67,282 Mexicans were arrested in the San
Diego area alone.) Of the several million undocumented Latinos in
the country, perhaps 38,000 are in this region. On demography maps,
much of the area looks like a field of whitest snow.
But the area's number of Mexican workers, both
legal and illegal, is expanding fast. The combined effects of
stepped-up law enforcement along the border and the decision of
California's voters in 1994 to make public health care and
schooling off-limits to undocumented immigrants and their children
have sent Mexicans pouring north and east.
winter the Colorado State Patrol found 1,209 undocumented Mexicans
within a three-month period. "They'd pull over a U-Haul for
weaving," says Greene, "and there would be 30 people in there." The
number was 12, or maybe 14, times what they'd found in the
Most were passing through to the
slaughterhouses of Iowa and the fields of Missouri, but some were
headed to join family and friends already holding down two or three
jobs in ski country.
Workers in ski towns take
the bus from the trailer courts of Glenwood Springs and El Jebel to
the glittering streets of Aspen. They drive over Lizard Head Pass
to work in the lavender-and-pink mining cabins-turned-restaurants
of Telluride; and they make their way from rent-controlled
apartment buildings to the brand new Victorian-style hotels of Park
Why are there so many jobs available
in ski areas? Myles Rademan, who became town planner in Crested
Butte, Colo., in 1972 and now directs public affairs in Park City,
Utah, explains that the industry has experienced dizzying growth.
During the same period, most of the ski bums - usually white baby
boomers who worked in ski towns - grew up, got serious, and moved
to the city.
As for their logical successors,
Generation X, they were raised in a less prosperous, more
competitive world. For the most part, they'd rather study law or
computer programming than hang out in Jackson or Sun Valley for a
semester. Even if they wanted to, the rising cost of living in
those towns has made it harder to do. In five Colorado ski counties
alone, 6,000 tourism jobs reportedly went unfilled in
"Not many people want to
come and work three jobs so they can ski one afternoon a week,"
says Rademan. "A lot of the Mexicans aren't interested in skiing,
they're just making a better wage than where they're coming from.
At this point most resorts couldn't live without them."
There's a joke in Park City that goes, "Where
can you get Mexican food here?" Answer: "In every restaurant."
Indeed, about 700 Mexicans work there. In Jackson, about 1,000 of
the town's 7,000 people are Mexican, about half of them working
legally. The Roaring Fork Valley below Aspen is home to an
estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Latinos, about three-quarters of whom
are Mexican. Most of the rest are from Central
Although the INS has executed raids all
over the region, Jackson's may have been the biggest bust a western
ski town has ever seen. Its effects reached far beyond the Mexicans
who were deported.
morning of the raid, one of the Mexicans got a phone call," says
Angie Gabbitas, the production manager at High Country Linen. The
laundry service employs 15 Mexicans and cleans sheets, towels,
napkins and tablecloths for virtually every business in
Although all the workers at the laundry
had produced documentation when they were hired, they were all
terrified by the raid. "They said, "Angie, we're gone." They came
back a week later. So all of us office personnel and family and
friends and children had to work 14 to 16 hours a day for a whole
Angie - a tall, straight, athletic woman
whose job keeps her on her feet most of the time - fared better
"It was kind of
stressful on us that don't normally work back there working 16-hour
days," says office manager Kay Humann. "It's tough! A lot of people
were just stuck. It's devastating to the hotels. I mean, the owners
were out there making the beds."
actually called Jackson Police Chief David Cameron - whose officers
teamed up with the INS, the Teton Sheriff's Department and the
Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation to pull off the raid -
and asked if the police were planning to help him make the
The effects were felt immediately on
Jackson's streets. It took 20 minutes to get a burrito at Taco
Bell. The Westerner Family Restaurant lost its entire kitchen crew
and had to close down. Manager Glenn McAfee told the Jackson Hole
News, "I'm upset; I'm pissed off. I've hired a total of six (Anglo)
people, and I've had two people actually show up for work. That's
why we hire Mexicans."
He bristled at the News'
suggestion that he hire less foreign labor to avoid paperwork
"Excuse the term,"
he said, "but most Americans are lazy."
Some significant failures
Police Chief Cameron figures this is not his
He says the raid's timing, right before
one of the biggest tourist weekends of the year, was not a
consideration: "We were not in a position, obviously, to say (to
the INS), "That weekend doesn't work for us." "
But he admits the aftermath of the raid has been
Furious locals reported seeing a
bicyclist being thrown to the ground and police hurling employees
up against walls. Both Cameron and INS Regional Director Greene
apologized for the fact that 15 hotel workers were hauled off to
the county jail in a horse trailer. Letters to the editor of both
local newspapers alternately reviled and supported the raid.
AgustÆn Perez, a stone mason who has had a green card since
1990, claimed he was "treated like an animal" by the agents during
the raid and is preparing to sue the INS and local authorites (see
story page 6).
standpoint of operations, there were some significant failures,"
If the bust has a lasting effect,
it will be that employers in Jackson will check the papers of job
applicants more carefully. The INS held a training session this
fall that showed the staff of High Country Linen and other
businesses how to spot false documents.
sessions won't only make finding jobs harder for workers with false
documents, but will also ease the minds of the businesspeople who
can be fined $1,000 or more for each undocumented worker they
The INS is investigating four Jackson
businesses for knowingly hiring undocumented workers. But law
enforcers maintain the vast majority of employers don't want to
hire illegals, but are often hoodwinked into doing so. About three
weeks after the bust, Cameron's department helped businesses do
four-day period, I think we had 20 work permits that were checked
out, meaning they called us and we ran numbers for them," says
Cameron. "Out of the 20, all but one was phony. I mean, they're all
over the place!'
What, for the sake or argument,
is wrong with hiring undocumented
"There are people
here who are able to utilize illegal labor," he practically shouts.
"Let me just ask the rhetorical question: Does that give them a leg
up on their competitors? Certainly it does! Is that an artificial
depression on the wage scale? Certainly it is! These folks are
willing to work for a lot less money. Should those businesses have
to pay the going rate for a dish washer? Certainly they should! Are
these people who are in the country illegally taking up housing
that people could otherwise use and live in this community, people
who are here legally? Certainly they are! Are they availing
themselves to an unwarranted extent of social services that
taxpayers pay for? Certainly they are!'
also wonders about the future: Second-generation illegal workers
aren't going to work for $5 an hour washing dishes, he says.
They'll want better. They'll become disaffected. They may form
gangs. "At the same time," he adds, "with the growing size of the
Hispanic community, I'm worried abut hard-core criminals from
Mexico finding a place there with drug sales, et-cetera."
Cameron and other small-town police chiefs
aren't just dealing with Latino immigration. They're also dealing
with explosive growth which brings problems, regardless of the race
of the newcomers.
An infusion of Anglo workers,
who would demand better housing and pay than Latinos do, would
disrupt mountain towns enormously. Downvalley from Aspen in
Glenwood Springs, Police Chief Terry Wilson emphasizes that the
first gang in his town was formed six years ago by Anglos who moved
in from Reno, Nev. But Latinos aren't immune from violence; there
have been several altercations between Hispanics and Anglos up the
road in Carbondale. Last month, a 17-year-old Latino, who had been
involved in gangs while growing up in Los Angeles, pulled a gun at
a party and pointed it at an Anglo teenager's head. He has since
delinquent problems are rising out of local American-born Hispanics
and Anglos," says Carbondale Police Chief Fred Williams. "The
teenager who was born in Chihuahua, he's not the problem."
Williams has been with his department for 20
years. "I think it's just like 25 years ago it was the cowboys and
the hippies, and in time we all learned to get along. Right now
that's what's happening here ... People from the city are finding
valleys like this, and moving here."
Back when the West was white
You could argue that Carbondale's restive teenagers are just the
latest product of a dynamic that started rolling with the Romantic
poets: People like pristine mountain landscapes. As recent history
in the West proves, what they like they will pay for. The rarer
pristine mountain landscapes become, the more people will pay for
access to them.
Over the last 50 years, richer
and richer people have moved to the high mountain landscapes of the
West. The people who worked in ski areas started to feel the
squeeze of rising real estate prices. That squeeze turned into a
pinch by the 1980s. But they good-naturedly commuted to work from
outlying towns. When the outlying towns got gentrified, they drove
for longer and longer distances, until their cheerfulness was
expended and they quit.
Into this vacuum came
the Latinos, to the horror of many of the people who had driven up
the real estate prices. Finding the funky log cabins formerly
rented by ski bums occupied by minor movie stars, the new workers
moved into trailer courts. They shared their trailers with not only
their own family but maybe one or two others. And they worked
It was different just 10 years ago when
I lived in Breckenridge, Colo. There, I either wrote about ski area
expansions for the weekly newspaper or went skiing with my friends,
who were all, it seemed, from Wisconsin.
Breckenridge was the most boring place I've ever lived in my life.
When I left in the spring of 1986, it was a mausoleum of emptying
condominiums and fake "locals' nights' at bars.
The only story I wrote about immigration back then concerned a
group of Australians illegally working in the area. The INS agent I
interviewed on the subject responded like a fireman might if I
called in to ask if his department rescued kittens out of trees: He
laughed and said he'd stick to Denver where they could get two
dozen Mexicans in a sweep rather than come all the way up to Summit
County for a smattering of Australians.
Colorado's mountains for a few years, and then returned to Paonia,
the scruffy home of fruit farms, coal mines, a few dozen hippies,
and this newspaper. Three winters ago, I found myself out of a job.
In a ski town this would have been a minor concern. In Paonia, it
was not. I did what about 200 of the 1,200 people in this almost
all-Anglo town do during the winter - I drove two hours through the
mountains each morning to work in Aspen.
cleaned condominiums with my assigned partner, Luz, who had come up
from Chihuahua the year before. While we stripped beds and folded
towels, we talked about our lives and our terrible commutes (we
both had car accidents on the way to work that spring). She told me
that she wanted to return to Chihuahua with her husband - a
maintenance man in the same condos we worked in - buy some land and
raise a family. I told her I wanted to get another writing
One day I realized with shock that I was
cleaning a condo my family had stayed in for a week when I was 9
years old. When I told Luz this, she smiled and shook her head as
if she couldn't believe that I would ever have kept company with
the Venezuelan oil executives and "Brazilianaires' who left makeup
and popcorn all over the rooms we cleaned.
Another day, I showed her an irate letter to the editor of The
Aspen Times complaining about the "Mexicans and riffraff"
encroaching on the town. "You're the Mexican," I said, "and I'm the
riffraff." She smiled, shrugged, and bent over to finish making the
is America, you know'
For the most part,
Mexicans work. But when they play, they play soccer. Soccer fields
- along with jobsites, schools and bus stops - are among the few
places that Mexicans and Anglos frequent at the same time.
"About three years ago, you'd
go out to the soccer field near the high school, and the Mexicans
would have their boom box going and they'd have enough for maybe
one soccer team," says Kay Humann, the office manager at High
Country Linen in Jackson. "Now there's four. There's, like, 250 of
"em out there."
Jackson Hole News editor Angus
Thuermer noticed the same thing. That was early in the summer; by
August, his newspaper had run a three-part series, "Jackson's
In Park City, a local
resident wrote a furious letter to the editor after his wife - who
had been watching her son's soccer game - encountered a group of
Mexicans holding beer bottles en route to the bathroom in the town
park. He suggested the town be renamed "Little Los Angeles' or "New
"To say that I
was appalled was putting it mildly," he wrote. "How had our safe
haven for families and kids turned into an inner city hangout?"
"There's a lot of prejudice
in this town," says Rod Ludlow, a detective with the Park City
Police Department and the owner of a restaurant in town. "We get
calls, "They're in the swimming pool at the racquet club. They're
in the city park. They're shopping where we shop." Well, this is
America, you know."
Ludlow paints a picture
that's all too familiar in Park City, Jackson and other ski towns:
There isn't adequate public transportation, so a Mexican buys a
car. Without a green card, he can't get a driver's license. Without
a driver's license, he can't get insurance. So when he gets pulled
over for a driving infraction (Mexicans often complain they get
pulled over for no reason whatsoever), he gets hit with a huge fine
and possibly jail time for driving without a license or
"If we don't allow
them to be law abiding, we're creating our own problem," says
Ludlow. That applies to the big picture, too. "It's just too bad
they can't come here and get a work permit easily, and let them do
the work they want to do without making criminals of them."
The making of a
Those who don't like what they're seeing
around the West's ski towns will have to contend with the steel
will of people like Salvador Vazquez. He is a 27-year-old,
soft-spoken, tired-looking man, who, like many of the Mexicans
currently living in Driggs, is from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala.
And like many of his neighbors, he grew up dirt
Salvador's early years here are also an
echo of those of many of his neighbors: He paid the "coyote"
smugglers $350 to get him across the border in 1984. His first job
was in the potato fields of nearby Ashton, Idaho, for $4.25 an
hour. From there, he worked his way into a $7-an-hour construction
job. Along with 2.5 million other Latinos working illegally in
1986, he received amnesty - and a green card - from Ronald
But then he lost control of his family.
He says his ex-wife started neglecting their 3-year-old daughter
and infant son, sometimes leaving them with other people for days
at a time. So he took the kids and went back to Mexico. When he
returned, she pressed kidnapping charges, and he landed in jail for
This turn of events didn't have any
effect on his work
"When I was in jail, we
used to sweep and mop every day, and two or three times a month
clean the place really good," he says. "Guys used to say, "Why are
you going to do that?" And I say, "I don't know. Why not do it? I
don't know what else." "
He started translating
Spanish into English for the judge and police. He washed the police
cars. He cooked for the other prisoners. He filed papers. He won
the hearts of the clerical
"A lot of people, they
don't like working," he says.
He was released on
a reduced misdemeanor charge and now lives with his mother, sister
and children. He has two jobs; one at the plant nursery in Victor,
and the other cleaning the courthouse and jail where he used to be
imprisoned. Asked if he thought an Anglo would have served a
similar jail term for his offense, he laughs and shakes his
The judge, he explains, said he could go
home at any time. But he opted to stay in jail in Driggs rather
than return to Mexico a free man. "As I told my lawyer, I
(wouldn't) have anything to offer my kids. In Mexico I'd only be
able to feed them."
Mexican families want
exactly what other North American families want, says Lori McCune,
who worked as a missionary in South America before becoming a
volunteer advocate for Mexican workers in Driggs a year and a half
ago: "They're looking for the things we're looking for. Peace,
quiet, homes for their children to have a good life ... They could
do a raid every day and they couldn't stanch the flow."
This, however, is exactly what Congress
is trying to do. It passed a bill this fall that will double the
size of the Border Patrol and crack down on the "coyotes' who lead
people like Salvador Vazquez, Juan Sanchez and José and
Milagro Umaûa out of Mexico. It also aims to streamline a
deportation system that is leaking badly; only 11 percent of the
illegal aliens who aren't actually in jail when they receive orders
to leave the country actually leave.
which is slated for enactment April 1, 1997, will also make
databases and other identification systems available to employers
who want to check the status of their job
"We have stuff in
there that has everything but the rack and thumbscrews for people
who are violating the laws of the United States," an exultant Sen.
Alan Simpson of Wyoming told Harper's magazine when the Senate
passed its version of the bill in May, months before the raid in
The police - who know the deportees
they're ushering south will probably rebound north as soon as
humanly possible - don't share the politicians' unbridled
enthusiasm for law enforcement as the solution to illegal
"From a global
perspective," says Jackson Police Chief Cameron, "we don't have a
Says Joseph Greene, "We don't take the
posture that the immigration service has the mission to arrest
every single illegal alien that comes to this country. Practically,
that's beyond our ability." Indeed, despite the Sturm und Drang
surrounding the current immigration bill, the INS won't do more
busts like Jackson's in the future, he
"We've got to try to be
experimental; we've got to try temporary worker permits," he says.
For nearly half a century, he explains, immigration law has assumed
if a foreigner is in the country for a purpose other than being a
student or a tourist, they want to stay here
"Our world is
much more complex than that," he says. "This thing is absolutely
He's right. The media are full of every
interlocking part of it. There's the poverty of interior Mexico,
the hideous living conditions and even worse violence surrounding
the maquiladora factories of Juarez; there's the fact that only 2
percent of Mexicans believe their country is not experiencing a
And that's just Mexico. On this side of
the border, there's economics and politics: States like Utah and
Colorado have miniscule unemployment rates, but there are millions
of unemployed born-and-bred U.S. citizens in other parts of the
country who theoretically have first rights to Western tourism's
unfilled jobs. There's also the fact that Hispanic voters are
starting to matter. They unseated U.S. Rep. Robert Dorman, a
consummate Orange County conservative, in the last election.
Then there's psychology: North Americans want
to clamp down on illegal immigration. But, if they were put in the
place of a Mexican surveying the sagebrush hills of Southern
California from Mexican soil, they would run for their lives into
Then there's greed: When the
managers of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Aspen found the INS
knocking on their door last winter, they considered their houseful
of gossamer threads, surveyed their options, and simply refused to
let the agents in.
No one can predict how many
more immigrants will reach the inland West, but one thing is clear:
The world economy has sent a new wave of pioneers in this
direction. And history shows that pioneers, with their fear of
poverty and limitless energy, change everything.
Lisa Jones is an associate editor for