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We don’t need no stinkin’ fence

Column by Hal Walter

Immigration -April 2006 -Colorado Central Magazine

ONE OF THE MOST TROUBLING THINGS about pending U.S. immigration reform legislation is the provision to build a fence along the border with Mexico.

The prospect of such a fence speaks volumes about the social changes in our country. Just two decades ago President Reagan called on Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Now in an age when a seemingly no-brainer personal freedom issue like gay marriage can make or break an election, we have the recent political storm over immigration in a nation made up of immigrants and descendants of immigrants.

Does building a fence along the Mexico border mean we also should disassemble the Statue of Liberty? Or maybe, seeing as how Lady Liberty was a gift from the French, perhaps we should do an “extreme makeover,” paint her up with red-white-and-blue warpaint and do a little masonry work to make it appear she’s packing heat. We could rename her “Lady Freedom” in the manner some simpletons renamed fried potatoes, which, by the way, are not common to French cuisine.

It is this sort of uneducated thought that gives rise to the moronic notion of a border fence, as if immigrants couldn’t figure out a way under, over, through or around, and as if they were not already here, firmly entrenched in our society and economy.

Many who live in Central Colorado may believe they are insulated from the effects of workers who are here from other countries both legally and illegally. Sure, there are many more immigrant workers in Southern California and other population centers, but they’re here too.

The ski and resort industry along the I-70 ghetto utilizes immigrant workers who mostly live in Leadville and Minturn. Many farms in the San Luis Valley and Lower Arkansas Valley would be unable to function without the labor provided by workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries, including Guatemala. Locally, I know of fancy horse ranches that are staffed and managed by immigrants. And the booming construction industry relies heavily on immigrant labor, especially when it comes to difficult and dangerous jobs such as roofing.

I saw firsthand just how hard these immigrant workers are willing to work when I had my roof replaced last fall. I was expecting the crew’s arrival when I left one morning on my daily rounds of feeding horses for my neighbors. When I drove away, the roofers had not yet arrived, and I was not gone more than 45 minutes. Upon my return, I found a crew of eight Spanish-speaking workers and my old roof already half peeled.

By lunchtime, the south-facing rooftop sported new composite shingles.

By the day’s end the north half was nearly completed. The crew returned early the next morning to finish the house and to quickly re-roof the tack shed before breakfast.

And then they were off to their next job, a roof in Silver Cliff. The roofing company’s owner also told me the crew was roofing numerous new homes under construction in the area. In fact, I was lucky to have gotten onto their busy schedule.

Recently, while editing an upcoming series of news features on the subject of immigration for the Pueblo Chieftain, I became more aware of the myriad issues surrounding immigrant workers in our region, from language barriers, to health care, to law enforcement.

SOME PEOPLE VIEW immigrant workers as “stealing” jobs from Americans and being a drain on public services. But many of the immigrants were employed in jobs most Americans don’t want to do, for pay many Americans would scoff at. A good number send some of their earnings home to their families. Most are also scared to seek medical attention or other services for fear of being turned in to authorities; one immigrant went to a hospital emergency room thinking she was having a heart attack, and is now making payments to the hospital. No drain there.

Moreover, many “illegals” get jobs using bogus social security numbers, and then pay taxes into the system from which they will never benefit.

In fact, one major reason the date for Social Security insolvency keeps getting pushed back is that these illegal workers are paying into the system without any expectation of a return on their investment. They literally are carrying the baby boomers into retirement.

There is a common complaint that immigrants are a burden on law enforcement, and that they crowd our prisons. But local law enforcement leaders say immigrants are no more likely to break the law than U.S. citizens, and the Department of Corrections says non-citizen inmates from Mexico make up about 5 percent of the state prison population.

Perhaps the biggest hypocrisy is the attempt to blur the immigration issue with national security. What a bizarre contradiction that some think it’s OK for Arabs who don’t live here to guard our seaports, but not OK for Mexicans who do live here, and who share a border with us, to plant and harvest our food, clean our hotel rooms and install roofs on our homes. Speaking of guarding our nation, while some try to tie the border issue to national security, foreign-born personnel make up about 5 percent of our armed forces.

In addition to the fence, the new immigration reform law, as currently written, would also make it illegal to aid an illegal immigrant in any way. This could include even something as simple and seemingly innocent as providing a meal to an immigrant who is hungry. Catholic leaders both national and regional have called for church members to break this rule should it become law, saying it goes against a basic tenet of Christianity that one should help those in need. Oddly enough, this law could create an entirely new class of felons: Good Samaritans.

While the stereotypical immigrant worker is Mexican, that’s not always the case. One of our best friends and a former neighbor, Harry, was an immigrant from Germany. Harry literally rode his horse into Custer County back in the 1990s. He and a friend came to the U.S. seeking a Wild West adventure. They took a bus from New York to Texas, traveled to New Mexico where they bought horses and headed cross-country by horseback, finally ending up at nearby Bear Basin Ranch.

HARRY EVENTUALLY OBTAINED “permanent alien resident” status through the immigration service lottery, and stayed for several years as an outfitter’s guide, turning later to construction and building two homes in the area. A couple years ago, Harry took a job as manager of a horse ranch in Oklahoma. He calls regularly and visits occasionally. In all the years I’ve known him, I never once felt like he was a threat to my livelihood or a drain on the economy. In fact, a few Americans could take a lesson from his industriousness. When Harry left for Oklahoma he was driving a new $30,000 pickup truck and towing an $8,000 horse trailer. The horse he rode in on was inside.

To me, any opposition to immigration seems rooted more in racism than in economics. Otherwise, it would be more logical to institute population control measures, such as limits on the number of children a couple may have, or even tax incentives for having fewer children. If our chief concern is enough jobs or paychecks to go around, or enough basic services and prison space, then we should go right to the real root of the problem — our own burgeoning numbers. After all, Americans are placing a far bigger burden on our economy and various “systems” than immigrants.

I doubt we’ll see many taking up that politically incorrect stance but it does seem like our leaders could come up with some way to have our immigrant labor and tax it too.

In the meantime, if we really feel the need to build fence, perhaps someone could design a dolt-proof barrier to be placed around Washington, D.C. It would be a true monument to American ingenuity.

Hal Walter cultivates burros and prose on 35 acres of the Wet Mountains near the ghost town of Ilse. He apologizes for resorting to political hackery, available just about anywhere else, including newspapers and cable news channels, for his April column. However, it was the only topic that came to a mind that has been freeze-dried and wind-beaten for the better part of a month.