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New Hispanic advocate continues legacy

Veronica Whitney

Vail’s bike trails, police officers and free buses are paid for, in part, by the sales tax collected in the town’s shops, hotels and restaurants. But that pile of money has been stagnant or shrinking each year for the past decade, leading some to argue the town needs to increase the money it collects in property taxes.

“Because of my background, I have a foot on both worlds,” says Montano, whose origins are Hispanic and American Indian. “My father was an electrician for a mine in Gilman. The fact that I’m bilingual and bicultural makes it easier to relate to the immigrants.”

Montano, 49, a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, also studied intensive Spanish at the University of Veracruz in Mexico. Montano, who grew up in Eagle County and now lives in Eagle, is replacing Allison Kercher.

Kercher left town in July to teach English at a university in Mexico. During a year as the immigrant advocate for Eagle County, Kercher saw 600 clients, advising them on immigration, employment and discrimination issues as well as providing about 80 other services.

Catholic Charities and Eagle County, which pitched in $25,000 for the position, sponsor the program that started in May, 2002.

“Most of the problems these people have come from living in a different culture,” Montano says. “Not understanding that things are done differently here. There’s also the language barrier and not knowing where to go for services.”

Dealing with the issues

Since she started the job, Aug. 11, Montano already has helped several people who were trying to get paid by their employers.

“Some are legal and some aren’t. But it’s premeditated because (employers) threaten to call INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) when they’re required by law to pay them, whether they have documents or not,” she said.

Some of those cases dealt with cleaning companies and construction businesses. In one case, Montano said she helped a worker file a wage claim with the Department of Labor.

“Some are afraid, but I tell them we need to make these people’s practices known to the authorities,” Montano said.

Another problem immigrants face is not being able to meet monthly expenses.

“Some can’t pay for food,” she said. “And there’s money out there to help people who don’t have enough money for food.”

Tom Ziemann, director of Catholic Charities’ Western Slope, said the program offers a place where immigrants can go to deal with their unique issue.

“It not only offers support to the immigrants, but to landlords or employers who are having a problem with their tenants or employees; they can call us as well,” Ziemann said.

Crucial link

Montano said she acts as a liason to the community on behalf of each person she helps.

“It’s important to let my name be known, so both employers and employees know I can help,” said Montano, who plans to continue offering the immigrant orientations that Kercher started last fall.

As the first immigrant advocate in Eagle County – there’s also one in Garfield County – Kercher offered a free, three-day orientation program on how to live in America. The courses were held at the Vail Cascade Resort, the Beaver Creek Park Hyatt and Cordillera.

The goal of the orientation is to give new immigrants an idea of American culture, an understanding of positive resident conduct and the resources available to them as they adjust to Eagle County. The topics include health, legal and financial issues.

“These orientations are a benefit to the employee as well as the employer,” Montano said. “Employees learn that being always 10 minutes late for work in America could turn into a problem while in their countries might not be a problem at all. Employers get a better performance out of their workers if they know how to stay away from trouble.”

Tolerance is critical

An obstacle she finds in the community is the mentality some people have about immigrants, Montano said.

“Everyone in some way is an immigrant in this country,” she said. “The issues the immigrants have are the same as we have. We all want a better life for our children.”

Montano says she believes people in the valley are being discriminated against mostly because people are uneducated.

“They even want to discriminate against the immigrants who are here legally,” she said. “They say they are taking away from them. What do they take away? Most of the young people in the valley don’t want to work at McDonald’s. They rather work on the golf course.”

One of her goals, Montano said, is to get over all these misconceptions, such as that every Hispanic in the county is illegal.

Two other pressing issues that immigrants face are the high drop out rate of high school students and the lack of affordable housing, Montano said.

“You lose one kid in school and that’s one kid too many,” she said.

“We also need more subsidized housing here. Without all these workers, the valley wouldn’t be the same.”

Ziemann said Montano’s easy going way helps her relate with people.

“She also is a long-time resident of the valley and she understands the issues here,” he said. “She’s also been an employer of immigrants, so she understands that part, too.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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