Aspen and immigration policy

A visitor to Aspen pauses to study the codger in front of the Hotel Jerome's bar. Photo/Allen Best

A visitor to Aspen pauses to study the metallic codger in front of the Hotel Jerome’s bar. Myles Rademan of Park City years ago joked that every restaurant in every ski town is a Mexican restaurant—if you inspect who is cooking the food and washing the dishes. Photo/Allen Best

Two paths on immigration, which would you choose?

by Mick Ireland

Can Aspen live without immigrants? I doubt it.

For more than a century, immigration, legal and not, has made Aspen what it is. The first wave of human beings, the original settlers, were what we now call the Utes — as though we have the right and power to label another people just before we exile them to less valuable reservations.

The Utes gave way to the insatiable hunger for land and riches by American investors, speculators and drifters of a mostly paler hue. Then as now, the hard, dangerous and physically demanding work was allocated to the most recent arrivals, Italians, Germans, Irish. The irrigation ditches that still serve us and actually protect some water rights from East Slope diversion were built by these new arrivals. The silver dragged from the mines was by and large also a product of immigrant labor.

Unlike our more recent immigrants, these “funny talkers” were citizens from the time of their arrival in the country. Prior to the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, there were no race or ethnic based barriers to immigrants.

The legal status of these migrants and their hard work allowed them to move up the economic ladder fairly rapidly. Unions forced up wages throughout the country and the accumulation of capital by the immigrants allowed them to open businesses. By the time Aspen’s population peaked in the 1890s at about 12,000, new arrivals owned businesses and some of the miner’s cabins in the West End that are still the object of admiration and controversy more than a century later.

To be certain, discrimination was widespread and probably depressed the wages for new immigrants by limiting their access to some jobs. “Irish Need Not Apply” signs can be seen in many old photographs. The Irish and Italian immigrant waves struck fear of lower wages into the hearts of the longer-established work force just as the waves of Chinese caused most of the labor unions to favor the exclusion of the “yellow menace” in California.

Immigrants at the time of Aspen’s incorporation were by and large economic refugees as are most of the adult migrants now living here, fleeing failing economies. The Irish potato famine with a resulting million-plus deaths is familiar to most of us. Just as real but lesser understood are the Chinese famines of the late 1800s that took 9 million or more and triggered migration.

The question for Aspen is, in simplest terms, whether national policy will treat our Mexican and South America work force as Irish and Italians were treated or the way Chinese were treated for generations, singled out for exclusion and kept in the shadows.

The present model is exclusionary and creates a legally enforced underclass. The effect on the work force wages here (and elsewhere) is negative. Persons who cannot bargain for wages are forced to accept what is offered, no unions, no overtime, no paid holidays.

The result is flat or declining wages for entry level jobs throughout Aspen. In the last 30 years, the inflation adjusted wages for an array of manual labor jobs have lost considerable ground including everything I did for a living when I arrived here in 1979 from dishwashing through journalism.

Not long ago, the local papers did a perfunctory account of half a million in “wage theft” by local employers. The investigation focused on service jobs where immigrant labor is concentrated. No follow-up was written, no questions asked of some of the most egregious violators.

Victims who have their wages trimmed after the fact or who are denied overtime typically are afraid to complain for fear of losing their jobs to individuals who are working off the books. The lack of leverage by the illegally employed drags everyone down.

The nation is currently deadlocked between those who would treat our present immigrants as Irish and Italians were eventually treated — assimilation — and those who want to treat them as the Chinese and Asians were treated for generations — exclusion and segregation.

The exclusionists want to militarize the border or even shoot the children seeking refuge here and basically exclude the undocumenteds from society in hopes they will, as Mitt put it, “self deport.” Chinese persons were banned from employment in many California businesses and, until 1948, legally prohibited from marrying Caucasians.

The inclusionists would grant conditional citizenship over time and allow the immigrants full economic rights. In Aspen, this would mean more job mobility and higher wages at the bottom as employment and wages would be more subject to market forces and regulation prohibiting wage theft and other injuries.

To be sure, being an undocumented from countries and continents south of the border won’t be as good as being Irish or Italian right off the boat in the old days. Waiting periods, criminal checks, back taxes and bias will remain in place for a while. But, as the Irish, Italians, Germans and others proved, citizenship was the right path and led to a more prosperous, powerful nation.

My Republican friends like to talk about states rights and the states as laboratories for testing social policies. It seems to me that California ran the experiment with exclusion more than a century ago and it failed miserably. The Chinese didn’t “self deport” even after being “illegalized” and being largely confined to “Chinatowns.”

It took 70 years for the nation to wake up and let go of the Chinese Exclusion Act and another 70 years for the Congress (in 2012) to apologize for that mistake. I hope we can learn from history rather than burdening our workers with a competing class of powerless “illegal” workers for the next century.

Mike Ireland is a former mayor of Aspen and, once upon a time, Aspen dishwasher and bus driver. He can be reached at  This essay originally published in the Aspen Daily News on July 25 and reprinted with permission of the author.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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