On Monday night in Steamboat Springs and again on Wednesday in Craig, a group of people concerned about the growing number of immigrants in Northwest Colorado gathered to discuss the implications of the changing demographic and to decide where Routt and Moffat counties should go from here.
Among those in attendance were members of the city of Steamboat Springs government staff, members of the nonprofit and social service community, educators and two immigrants -- one from Colombia and one from Mexico.
There was a moment of silence as the number sunk in. Colleen Miller, owner of Viable Resources, a company that facilitates the visa process for employers, was discussing the annual quota for temporary work visas in the United States. During the fiscal year 2004 to 2005 beginning Oct. 1, 66,000 H2B visas were available to temporary nonagricultural foreign workers. By Jan. 3, that quota had been filled.
To compare, the number of Mexican immigrants living in Routt and Moffat counties is estimated at more than 1,000 people.
If people can't get visas, Miller said, it doesn't stop them from coming to the United States, and it doesn't stop employers from hiring them.
The quotas only make life more dangerous for Mexicans and Central Americans who are desperate for paychecks to feed their families, Isidro Quezada said.
Quezada is an employee at the Trapper Mine in Craig and is a legal resident of the United States. But when he came over the border decades ago looking for work, he saw people lose their lives trying to make the trip illegally.
On Wednesday night, he told his story.
Quezada came to the United States for the first time when he was 14 years old. He worked on a ranch in Arizona for 50 cents an hour. Because he was in the country illegally, his employer charged him as much as two days pay each week in exchange for not turning him over to authorities. He and the other Mexican ranch hands lived in the desert outside of the ranch. They built a shelter out of a tarp disguised by branches so Border Patrol airplanes wouldn't see them. They fought off rattlesnakes and thieves, Quezada said.
"It was bad for me then, but I never thought about going back to Mexico," he said. "I didn't want people to laugh at me that I had come to the United States and not made any money."
Quezada eventually got caught by immigration authorities and was sent back to Mexico. He paid a coyote, a human smuggler, to get him back across the border.
"Back then I was 130 pounds," Quezada said. "I was a small guy. So they put us in the trunk of a small car -- three of us. They drove us to Tijuana, but when they got caught, the driver ran away and left us in the trunk.
"When the police opened the trunk and let us out, we passed out from the heat. They took us to the hospital. The old man that was in there with us, he died. People go through a lot of things to get here. Behind (Mexican immigration) is a lot of darkness, but it's worth it."
Phoenix's Arizona Republic reported that the Border Patrol counted 172 undocumented-immigrant deaths in Arizona in 2004. The leading causes of death are heat stroke, dehydration and hypothermia.
"My government is killing people trying to come into this country to work," said Mike Kien, Oak Creek Town Board member. "We need to eliminate the quota system."
Most in attendance agreed with Kien that quotas needed to be raised or eliminated. As long as there are jobs in the United States and employers willing to hire immigrant laborers, and as long as the Mexican economy continues to only offer poverty level wages to its workers, this country and Northwest Colorado are going to see a steady flow of new faces.
Liliana Rojas, a Colombian immigrant and editor of the Spanish page in The Local, went to school for six years studying marketing and international relations. In her home country, she found a job that paid $100 a month. She could make a better life for her daughter, she said, working in restaurants in the United States. She moved to Steamboat Springs two years ago and plans to stay indefinitely.
"When I first came to Steam-boat, I was the only Colombian," Rojas said. "Now, I think there are 25 or more."
Quezada saw a similar wage issue in Mexico.
"Mexico is not that bad," he said. "There is a lot of work, but the pay is low. Also, there is oil. The material is there, but we need someone to manage it better."
The group argued about the effects of the North America Free Trade Agreement and policies surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border, but they agreed that arguing about international government policies in a conference room in Steamboat Springs would lead only to frustration.
Although communities in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have been dealing with these issues for decades, the immigration debate is new to Northwest Colorado.
The numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America noticeably have grown in the past five years. From her research as the executive director of Communidad Integrada, Summer Laws estimated Spanish speakers represent 5 percent of Routt County's population and 15 percent of Moffat County's.
Although those numbers are larger than the area had seen previously, they are still small, she said. "We are at the front end of this, and we have the chance to be proactive about it. We can learn from what other communities have gone through and not make their mistakes."
In other communities, Anglo and immigrant populations tend to segregate -- separated from each other by cultural differences and a language barrier.
Already in Craig, where the immigrant population is larger and better established, Spanish speakers tend to live in the same apartment complexes or in certain neighborhoods.
Part of the issue is fear of getting found out and deported.
"For some Mexicans, the fewer people that see them, the better," Quezada said. "They see the boss for the paycheck and then stay home."
For others, the language barrier is the greatest wall.
"More than half still struggle with English," Quezada said. "They want to be integrated, but they are afraid they'll be refused."
Laws sees the solution as two-fold. Her organization has been providing in-home English lessons for those people who can't make it to Colorado Mountain College's English as a Second Language classes. She and her business partner, Cody Reed, also have been focusing on organizing events, such as the recent Cinco de Mayo celebration in Craig and last year's Mexican Independence Day in Steamboat, during which the two cultures can come together.
Quezada and Laws worried about the Mexican community becoming too isolated. Afraid of deportation, parents sometimes try to treat their sick children at home instead of risking a trip to a strange doctor, Quezada said, or they are afraid to call the police when they have been robbed or are mistreated by an employer.
One solution is for people in the medical and law enforcement community to earn immigrants' trust by having someone who speaks Spanish help, Quezada said. The other solution lies in the Spanish-speaking community.
Because immigration is so new in the area, there aren't as many established residents who can help newcomers like there are in other parts of the country, Laws said. To integrate, immigrants need more people like Rojas, who is publishing a Spanish page with advice and information for immigrants or like Quezada, who newcomers know they can call in a financial crisis.
"So many immigrants here are still at the struggling point," Laws said. "They are so new to the U.S. they don't know who to reach out to for help. It's not a lack of willingness, but other immigrants don't have the time. They are working two and three jobs."
Whose responsibility is it to make sure new immigrants feel safe and are cared for in a crisis? And, if social services struggle under the weight of the new demographic, whose responsibility is it to provide them with more resources?
Some thought that Steamboat Springs, whose labor market is driving the current immigration boom but whose economy does not provide affordable housing for workers, has a responsibility to entities such as the Craig School District, which must hire more staff to provide services to a growing number of non-English-speaking students.
One organization that has helped ease the burden for working immigrant families is the Boys & Girls Club of Craig, said Linda Haltom, director of finance for the Yampa Valley Community Foundation. "Parents can drop kids there before they drive to work in Steamboat," Haltom said. "That organization is growing by leaps and bounds. This year, they are going to start a hot meal program in the evenings.
"The Craig community has had to adjust in many ways to be able to support (the growing number of immigrants)," Haltom said. "I don't think the Steamboat Springs community and the business owners who hire these people understand that."
Autumn Phillips can be reached at 871-4210 or firstname.lastname@example.org