The public affairs director for Park City, Utah, Myles Rademan, tells a story about tourists on a ski vacation asking him for directions to a Mexican restaurant.
answer: "They're all Mexican restaurants. Go into the kitchen of
any restaurant, whether it's American, Italian or Chinese, and the
people cooking the food are Mexicans."
I thought of
Rademan's anecdote recently while watching the broadcast narrated
by Tom Brokaw about our immigration debate. It was titled "In the
Shadow of the American Dream," and if some thought that title
unoriginal, I found it appropriate. Isn't the American Dream about
the chance to live a better life? Brokaw's report was set in the
Colorado Rockies, in a valley where the economic shadow of Aspen
falls for 80 miles, overlapping a similarly immense shadow from
Vail, center of our nation's best-known mountain resorts. These
communities are among the wealthiest in the world. It's probably
not incidental that the immigration flood arrived here far sooner
than in most interior locations. Money was to be made — by
the immigrants, by their employers — and by the consumers.
Of course, it's not usually explained that way. As it was
in Brokaw's program, it's explained that Americans won't do the
work, not even at $12 to $14 an hour, the starting wage for
construction laborers in these high-paying, high-cost resort
valleys. Construction of vacation and retirement homes has now
trumped tourism as the strongest economic driver, and the real
estate markets are burgeoning. But the foundation is tolerably
cheap labor. The point was made bluntly by a construction company
owner in Brokaw's program. If not for immigrant labor, including,
probably, illegal immigrants, he seemed to say, how would
But who prospers, and exactly how
much? That's where the television story fell short. It failed to
follow the money trail, so we ended up with clichés, little
better than the myths that publicists for Brokaw's show promised to
dispel. So the money trail is mostly anecdotal, of construction
contractors grown rich and living in big houses, their Latino
laborers all legal, they insist, and of roofing bosses able to
retire in their early 50s. Ah, this America is a good place, they
will tell you, where hard-working men and women can pull themselves
up by their bootstraps.
They may not even wink. They may
actually believe it's all the result of hard word and smarts. Lost
is the foundation for this amazing wealth: cheap labor.
In our national debate about immigration, we have relied upon facts
that stop short of truth. You can't find good labor for $14 an
hour? Well, then, can you find good labor at $20 an hour? It seems
frightfully high, but then, so are the costs of these homes workers
help build for the titans of American entertainment and industry,
homes that customers are buying with cash.
After the TV
broadcast, anti-immigration activist Frosty Wooldridge might have
grazed the truth in an essay in The Aspen Times: "With unending
growth," he wrote, "21st century robber barons enjoy unending
profits." We have a wink-wink economy, and in our abundance,
honesty is our greatest shortage. And it's not just the
über-rich. A case in point has to do with the recent federal
crackdown on Swift, the nation's third largest meatpacking company.
At one plant, in Greeley, Colo., 10 percent of the workforce was
detained. Swift officials professed innocence, yet the strategy of
meatpackers for many years has been to locate their huge plants in
rural under-populated areas; 2,000-3,000 workers, therefore,
materialized from Mexico.
Who benefits most from illegal
workers? Swift's chairman of the board lives in a big house at a
ski resort, owns several other resorts in the West and has a major
hockey team. But why pick on him? Good cuts of meat are cheap, and
I eat them. So do you, probably. Isn't that part of the American
Dream, this better life -- not having to eat liver and onions?
Last winter, I had work done to my heating system. The
contractor took three months to get there, and when he did, charged
me $1,000 for a day's work. In the meantime, I had met an immigrant
-- illegal or not, I didn't ask - who did such work. I thought at
the time I could get the job done for $500 or $600.
bet I was tempted.