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Immigration increasingly divisive in mountains

Eben Harrell
Laborers wait in the early morning outside of the Cowen Center in Carbondale for possible employment. Aspen Times photo/Devon Meyers
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America is no stranger to waves of immigration. It could be argued that mass immigration is the single greatest force to have shaped American history. In a sense, war, persecution and famine abroad are America’s true forefathers – the cause and creation of its large and diverse population. Att different times and for different reasons, masses of foreigners have poured across America’s borders and in each of these instances, the country has struggled to assimilate its newcomers.Today, America is dealing with another mass immigration. According to census bureau estimates, the foreign-born population of the United States is currently 33.1 million, with an estimated 8 million inside the country without the government’s knowledge or permission. During the 1990s, an average of more than 1.3 million immigrants – legal and illegal – settled in the United States each year. Many believe those estimates to be low and almost all agree they will grow significantly in coming years.The current wave of immigration is different in part because its location has moved from East to West; the drama is no longer played out on the shores of Ellis Island, but on the banks of the Rio Grande.According to numbers cited by Newsweek magazine, California must build one new school per day to keep up with the influx of 3,000 immigrants and their kids, most of whom are Mexican, currently entering the state every 24 hours.

In Colorado, due in large part to an explosion in Latino immigration, there are currently 400,000 foreign-born people in the state, including an estimated 200,000 illegal aliens. These numbers represent a 161 percent increase in the state’s immigrant population over the last 10 years.The most dense pockets of immigrants in the West are in metro areas. But even in the semirural Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys, the immigrant population has changed the culture. It’s impossible to say for sure how many foreign-born residents are here illegally, but one Eagle-based immigration attorney estimates the number at 40 percent.The drastic demographic change has caused its share of controversy. Battle lines have been drawn. Some citizens and organizations have dedicated huge amounts of resources to help Latino immigrant population. Others are committed to seeing them deported.The punditsThere are those in the region who believe the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, and others like it across the West, is not doing nearly enough to rid America of illegal immigrants. Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform is a statewide group that believes all illegal aliens should be deported and that the number of legal immigrants entering the United States each year be reduced from 1 million to 300,000.

The group has strong regional ties. The alliance’s spokesman is Aspenite Mike McGarry, who says mass immigration ise a grave threat to the environment. He and shis supporters argue the current influx will swell America’s population to nearly a half-billion by 2050, far beyond sustainable limits. Allow immigrants to keep coming, he says, and America is headed toward environmental crisis: disease, environmental destruction, depletion of resources, cultural decay – the four horsemen of apocalyptic overcrowding. “When you run a ranch, there’s a certain number of cattle that is ideal for that ranch. Add one more cow, and suddenly resources are scarce, and the cattle become weak and sick,” Paulson says. “It’s the same with humans. We have a population breaking point. People don’t like to be called cattle, but in a way that’s what we are. Every major problem we have in society can somehow be linked to overpopulation.”And the environmental argument appears to be their best weapon. Recently, a group of anti-immigrationists, including former Colorado Governor and alliance member Richard Lamm, made a strong bid for the leadership of the Sierra Club. They failed, but immigration and population growth has become a talking point for environmental activists across the nation.The other sideWhile immigration opponents are lobbying state and national politicians against mass immigration, a large number of charity organizations work on the ground to support immigrants and their families. Members of these nonprofit groups are the closest thing to immigrant activists in the region



The list of organizations supporting Latino immigrants is long and wide-ranging. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are donated each year to support the valley’s Latino community.Although he runs a for-profit business, Marty Martinez provides one of the most important resources for immigrants in the region. He runs Rio Vista Services, an accounting firm that helps the immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley with their finances and taxes. To Martinez, illegal immigrants constitute a misunderstood resource. He says illegal aliens pay sales taxes, income taxes and make payments for social security, while rarely seeing any return on that money. In a region with low unemployment, illegal aliens do not take American jobs, but instead take the jobs Americans don’t want; at the same time, the influx of immigrants has created a new market for local businesses, he says.There are some people who earn up to $100,000 a year and pay taxes on it,” Martinez says. “They are also spending a lot of that money on local industry – it’s not all going back home. I think that’s why you see a lot of local businesses starting to target Latinos; they realize what a huge market potential exists here.” Scott Chaplin, Carbondale Town Council member and director of the Stepstone Center, a nonprofit grassroots organization in Carbondale, is a vocal supporter of local immigrants. Like Martinez, Chaplin says the immigrant population to be hardworking and valuable to the community. To Chaplin, America’s meddling in Mexican and Central American affairs is to blame for the hardship that drives immigrants across the border. Corrupt regimes, such as those of Agusto Pinochet in Chile and Carlos Armas in Guatemala, have been bolstered and even installed by the United States over the last half-century, undermining democracies, manipulating economies and causing millions of people to seek better opportunities in America. “Most immigrants coming to the U.S., especially from Mexico, come here due to lack of economic opportunity in their countries,” Chaplin wrote in 2000. “Can we really take a high moral stand and say to those that want to immigrate here, ‘Yes, we may have destroyed your democracies and created economic hardship for you, but we need to protect our own environment, so do not come here’?”


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