Miller Hudson, Colorado Politics - July 15, 2019
Gil Cisneros has captained the Chamber of the Americas in Denver for several decades, linking Colorado entrepreneurs with business opportunities across Latin America and vice versa. His most recent e-mail notified members that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has earmarked an additional $500 million for investments in southern Mexico, bringing total funds for the region to $800 million, primarily focused on strengthening natural gas and wind power infrastructure. If you suspect Mexico's efforts to assist in staunching the current flow of immigrants from Central America triggered this largesse, you are a shrewd student of the news. You may be surprised, however, to discover that net migration between the U.S. and Mexico is running in reverse, with more emigrants now returning to Mexico each month than there are newcomers seeking work in the United States.
A few weeks ago, Gil scheduled one of his periodic luncheons, featuring a discussion of immigration with two of Denver's most prominent immigration lawyers, Carol Hildebrand at Sherman and Howard and David Simmons a former chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Together they offered a perspective on immigration that was unexpected. Simmons attributes the reversal in immigration flows with Mexico to the success of NAFTA. Whatever negative impacts may have damaged manufacturing industries in the American Midwest, per capita incomes in Mexico as a share of GDP equal those in South Korea. NAFTA has proven an economic bonanza for our southern neighbor. There seems to be a lesson in this change as the Trump administration chokes off further assistance to Central American governments in favor of economic sanctions.
Hildebrand pointed out that the federal immigration code runs to more than 600 pages, separating non-immigrant visitors into 29 distinct classes. This Byzantine document is embroidered with extensive rules regarding green cards, permanent residency (geared toward college graduates), asylum seekers, detention rules, temporary protected status, DACA, family preferences, quotas and much more. The chance of a successful asylum appeal triples when applicants can afford an American attorney to represent them at their hearings. No surprise there. There was agreement that the "Gang of Eight's" immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate several years ago with a two-thirds vote, but later stalled in the Republican House, would have improved the situation.
Colorado has always been of two minds regarding immigration. Two of our largest economic sectors, agriculture and tourism, rely on immigrant labor. In the summer of 1981 Republican state Rep. Nick Theos of Meeker, past president of the National Wool Growers' Association, took me on a back-country tour of the flocks grazing on his 200,000 acre ranch. We were delivering a bottle of Jim Beam, a box of bullets to scare off coyotes and a week's worth of groceries to young men residing in tiny shepherd trailers. We moved several of them in pursuit of Nick's sheep. These were seasonal workers from Mexico and Central America. Nick couldn't find local kids willing to spend a summer isolated from the rest of the world. The same challenge goes for many farmers and ranchers on Colorado's eastern plains. Nor is it easy to find workers willing to change sheets, clean toilets and vacuum condos for skiers during the winter – not to mention the difficulty of securing sufficient temporary work permits for the Aussie, Kiwi, and South African college students who operate lifts and groom slopes in the dark of night.
In another briefing Elise Reifschneider, program director for the Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance (DATA) pointed out that undocumented immigrants are uniquely vulnerable. There are 21 trafficking task forces operating throughout Colorado, including law enforcement agencies, district attorney offices and county human service departments. They are all busy. While trafficking conjures up images of young women chained in basements, 80 percent of human trafficking involves coerced labor, even slavery. Wage theft is the most common abuse as employers and labor brokers prey on the vulnerability of an undocumented workforce. "If you complain, I will turn you over to ICE" is a threat that silences a lot of voices.
In cases of sexual exploitation, 90 percent of victims know their perpetrators. Forced prostitution is accompanied, far too often, with drug use – behavior the law normally regards as illegal. LGBTQ victims are often at special risk for manipulation. It's taken time for government to figure out how to protect trafficking victims and earn their trust while pursuing perpetrators and pimps. Fortunately, there are public employees who arise each morning and diligently attempt to provide justice for victims.
The notion that immigrants are stealing jobs is largely bogus, while criminals regularly steal from them in "high reward - low risk" schemes. Preventing much of this would be easier if we offered work permits at the border and established a path to citizenship for families that have lived among us for decades.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.