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for people who care about the West

The underbelly of prosperity in the resort West is illegal labor

  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.

His 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 prosperity continue?

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.

You bet I was tempted.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He publishes Mountain Town News, which focuses on mountain resorts in the North American West, from his home in Denver.