Two years ago, Alejandra was sitting on a low stool at a downtown Aspen salon, crouched over a client’s feet, administering a French pedicure with signature precision. Wrapped in a black smock, her client reclined in a large, leather upholstered chair while her hair color was processing, her head full of tin foil strips. They made small talk, sharing photos of their little ones.
Alejandra (not her real name; a pseudonym has been used to protect her from possible deportation by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) is 22 years old and was born in Nayarit, Mexico, but has lived in Colorado since she was 4. She was raised in Carbondale, went to Crystal River Elementary, attended high school in Glenwood Springs, and speaks English and Spanish fluently. But without proper legal status or a Social Security number, Alejandra can’t work, at least not legally. She is one of many undocumented workers who play an integral role in the resort economy yet don’t exist on paper. And like so many of Aspen’s “back of the house” workforce—housekeepers, dishwashers and cooks, construction workers and landscapers—she had found a job that allowed her to remain in the shadows.
As the debate over immigration policy rages in Washington, DC, and beyond, people whose lives hang in the balance continue to work right here in Aspen. They clean your room, prepare your food, build your home, and take care of your children. They might be your employee, your friend, your colleague, or the parent standing next to you at the park. While our local economy has relied on immigrant labor for years, in today’s politically charged climate, the situation for those who are undocumented has taken on unprecedented urgency.
If the undocumented immigrants who sustain Aspen’s workforce were living in the shadows before, they’ve been retreating even deeper into the darkness since Donald Trump became president. “It scares me when Trump says he wants to get every illegal person out of the US,” Alejandra says. “I feel afraid all the time. It makes me worry about my future and worry for my son.” If she gets deported to Mexico, Alejandra would be building a life from scratch. “I’m no one down there,” she says. “I have zero. It would be me starting all over again in a foreign country.”
The fact is, a lot has already changed for Alejandra since President Trump took office. Whatever chance she had at finally getting her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status has slipped out of reach now that the president has threatened to end the program; the acceptance of new applicants, as well as the future for current ones, are tangled up in the courts. Undocumented immigrants can now be detained and deported at any time, for any reason, even if they have no criminal record, according to Jennifer Smith, an immigration lawyer from Glenwood Springs who handles such cases.
A privately owned processing center in Aurora, Colorado, where thousands of immigrants have been detained, is in the midst of a class-action lawsuit for inhumane labor practices. And the Trump administration announced in January that it would suspend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from six countries, including Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, which means the father of Alejandra’s 13-month-old son will either have to leave the country or be at risk for deportation.
The current wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric has also created concern among the many Aspen employers who rely on foreign-born labor to survive. In some cases, these business owners have decades-long relationships with employees who are now living in fear, and they lack a way to protect these workers. Another factor is increased liability as President Trump pushes for a federal mandate that would require all businesses to use E-Verify, the online database that runs employee-provided info against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to ensure the hiree is authorized to work in the US. Currently, only eight US states require that employers use E-Verify.
Two years ago, Alejandra was still hopeful. Her boss was the one who encouraged her to apply for DACA, helped her enroll at a local beauty school so she could get student status even though she never finished high school, and even paid a local immigration lawyer $1,000 to help process the DACA paperwork. Says Alejandra now, “My boss gave me hope. She gave me a job. She helped me enroll in school.”
In today’s climate, that sort of hope is much harder to come by.
Warren Klug sits behind a large, stately desk in his office at the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel, his eyes weary behind round glasses. He’s on the verge of retirement after a long and storied career as general manager. An elderly couple stops in with a bottle of wine to thank him for 25 years of providing the kind of impeccable guest service Aspen’s reputation was built on.
“Oh, I’ll still be here part time,” he says with a wave and a sigh.
Immigration is a difficult, if not exasperating, topic for Klug, who has experienced the issue over the last two decades from many angles: as an employer, as an immigrants’ rights advocate turned lobbyist, as an active member of Aspen’s business community, and as a longtime board member of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
He’s also had a lot of personal experience with what he sees as a broken system. In 2014, the hotel was audited by ICE. Klug says his paperwork was in perfect order, and the property was found to be in total compliance. Still, Klug was forced to dismiss 15 members of his housekeeping staff, many of whom were faced with possible deportation. “When ICE delved into the Social Security numbers, they determined there were people who had provided erroneous information and were, in fact, not legal to work,” he explains. “The question is, do we follow the law with respect to hiring employees? And the answer is yes, we absolutely do. No one is going to tell you that they’re going to hire illegal workers.”
He says more than half of his high-season staff of 55 are native Spanish speakers. “Immigrants are clearly a very important part of our workforce here in Aspen and Snowmass,” Klug notes. “We can’t function without them. Why do we want to get rid of these hardworking people who are doing the work that needs to be done? This is a business issue as well as a humanitarian issue.”
Over the years, Klug became passionate about immigrants’ rights, actively lobbying lawmakers in both Denver and Washington. Shortly before President Obama was reelected in 2012, Klug worked with Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (Democrat) and former Obama White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes to help draft proposed legislation that would provide a legal path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, a figure that has remained consistent for almost a decade, according to a report released last April by the Pew Research Center. “These were proposals to address the millions of people who are working in the shadows and scared to death of getting deported,” Klug says. “They may have been here for decades, but they still don’t have legal status. I believe there are ways to provide a system to give them legal status and a path to citizenship.”
Presently in the state of Colorado, employers are in compliance as long as they file an I-9, the federal form used to verify the identity and employment authorization of new workers, within three days of hire. They are not required by law to further verify someone’s identity or proof of his or her eligibility to work, though they could take steps to do so through E-Verify. (Only government agencies or businesses that contract with a government agency are required to use E-Verify.) Under the current system, some business owners may know employees are using fake documents to get a job but are choosing to look the other way. They have their own good reasons for a “don’t ask, don’t tell ” policy.
“I have more problems with Americans who only want to ski, want higher pay, and don’t want these jobs in the first place,” says the owner of a popular Aspen café, who asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize any of his employees. “I use E-Verify for my own knowledge. But if I like someone, I will hire them even if I know they are using a fake ID because I want to give them the opportunity. People don’t come to Aspen to be in a gang. They come here because they want to work, and they are some of my best and most reliable employees.”
An executive chef at another long-standing Aspen restaurant, who also asked not to be named for the same reason, says his kitchen is entirely Spanish speaking. “They get fake papers, but it looks real,” he says. “I call them by their fake names, and they don’t turn around, so I have to ask someone to find out what their real name is.”
At one point, he had three people in the kitchen who tried to use the same Social Security number. “I’m not a policeman,” he continues. “It’s not my job to determine if an ID is fake or not. These are my best workers.” He says his sous chef, who is undocumented and from El Salvador, began as a dishwasher and worked his way up; now he often takes home bigger paychecks than the executive chef does. “He can do everything I can do, and I can rely on him,” says the head chef. “He works very hard because he sends money home to his wife and children.”
In Aspen, many of the employers interviewed for this article say they use their payroll companies to verify Social Security numbers. But business owners have little recourse for an employee who steals a real identity, even if they use E-Verify, because the Social Security number and name will check out. (It should be noted that undocumented immigrants who use false Social Security numbers pay into the program without getting any of the benefits.)
That’s exactly what happened at the Limelight Hotel in September 2016. A housekeeper purchased a fake name for $2,500, according to a story published in the Aspen Times, and was arrested when a warrant on a domestic abuse charge was issued for the person whose name she’d bought. The housekeeper then admitted to the arresting officers that she was using the name to work at the hotel because she was not a legal US resident.
“We go above and beyond to vet all our employees,” says Jim Laing, chief human resources officer for Aspen Skiing Company, by far the largest employer in the Roaring Fork Valley. “We absolutely use E-Verify, and we are also enrolled in a voluntary certification program with ICE. They come in and audit all of our I-9 files for compliance, and we pass with flying colors. They also come in and give us additional training for our I-9 processing and inform us on how to avoid fraud. We are committed to doing the right thing.”
Laing says the Limelight incident was rare. “We hire 1,500 new employees every year,” he says. “I’ve been at this job for four years, so I figure one out of 6,000 isn’t bad.”
Karina Oden was at work the day her employee, whose real name is Marian Del Carmen Henriquez, was apprehended by Denver police. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” she says. “The way they stormed in here and took her, it was really scary. It was awful.”
Oden is an effervescent 38-year-old who smiles with her whole face and has a quick wit and a girlish laugh. She is the director of housekeeping at the Limelight, a post she’s held for almost three years. She jokes that she is also “a policeman and a psychologist” to the 24 housekeepers she supervises. Originally from Chile, she speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Italian. She and her husband recently purchased their first home and just returned from a trip to Italy, her first time traveling with a US passport.
For Oden, the system worked. She had a lot going for her from the start: she was college educated, had the means and the freedom to pay for international travel, and is a native of a country from which few people emigrate to the US. Oden easily acquired a tourist visa that was valid for six years. She was required to leave the country every six months to stay in compliance, which she did.
Oden moved to Aspen in 2000 and had no problem finding work, eventually settling in at the Westin in Snowmass (formerly the Silvertree Hotel), where she worked for 14 years. Through her job, she was able to qualify for a work visa, then a green card. When she married her American husband, she was finally on the path to citizenship, which she completed in September 2016, an experience she described as “very emotional” and “a huge relief.” She says Trump’s nomination kicked her into high gear to complete the process, which ultimately cost close to $20,000. “Even when I had my green card, I was worried Trump might change my status,” she admits. “You never know what he’s going to do.”
Though her worries are behind her, Oden has close friends who are undocumented and terrified by what is happening under the current administration. “They are literally afraid to leave the house sometimes,” she says. She is also concerned for the six El Salvadorian women who currently work for her under Temporary Protected Status; they may have that exemption suspended next year.
What upsets Oden the most is the discrimination she’s experienced for the first time in the 18 years she’s lived in the US. “Suddenly, we’re afraid to speak Spanish in public,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a free country. I should be able to speak my first language.” She adds that because of her skin color and her accent, people are often suspicious. “When I go to the doctor, they are always so worried I’m not going to have health insurance. I want to tell them, ‘Here is my health insurance card, here is my passport, here is my college diploma. I am a citizen, I speak four languages.’ People are becoming so racist now.”
For someone like Alejandra, the salon worker, a path to citizenship is not so clear-cut, even though this is the only country she has ever really known. “There are many, many things that can prevent people from even qualifying for legal process, and if they do, wait times may be unrealistic,” says Smith, a staunch advocate for immigrants’ rights. “I have employers come into my office every week who really want to help an employee who is vital to their business find a path for legal status, and I have to tell them we simply don’t have a system in place to do it right. The process is ridiculously expensive, complicated, and riddled with pitfalls.”
Smith is appalled by the changes she’s seen under the current administration, namely that more people are being detained and subject to deportation than ever before. “There’s been no significant change in the law, but the manner in which they approach it,” she comments. “There is a message of no discretion. Anyone in violation in any way is an enforcement priority, not just people with a criminal history.”
As a result, Smith continues, undocumented immigrants are afraid to call the police, especially in cases of domestic violence, or show up for court, where ICE officers often wait for potential suspects. And they’re often afraid to seek medical attention or get involved with the schools because they don’t want to bring attention to themselves or give out any personal information.
“People are feeling more isolated and less willing to trust the system because it’s very uncertain who is going to get targeted for removal,” says Jon Fox-Rubin, executive director of the Valley Settlement Project, a local nonprofit that helps immigrant families improve their lives through educational programs. “We encourage people to continue their education and to support their children through early education, despite the uncertainty and the fear.”
Even though many resources are available in the Roaring Fork Valley to help undocumented immigrants, outreach is key to earning their trust. “It’s always been hard for the Latino community to come forward with law enforcement for many reasons,” says Jackie de Achaval, bilingual program manager for Response, which aids survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. “We try to get the word out that our services are confidential and free, and we can act as a liaison with law enforcement and give victims the help they need.”
Those fears aren’t unwarranted, says Sophia Clark, campaign manager and Rocky Mountain point person for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. Clark, 28, grew up in Basalt and attended the bilingual program at Basalt Elementary School. She now coordinates a statewide hotline to document police and ICE abuse. Clark takes a long view on immigration, ticking off the history of significant events and federal legislation that led us to where we are today. “The deportation system we have now has been evolving for almost 30 years,” she explains. “The Obama administration deported more people than any other president in history, but they also made promises for immigration reform for which they could be held accountable. How do you hold accountable an administration whose goal is to deport as many people as possible? They’re breaking up families. Every person is a priority. Any contact with the police puts someone in significant danger. It’s very scary.”
Undocumented immigrants may have less to worry about in Aspen, where Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo provides sanctuary for all law-abiding citizens, both in practice (refusing to comply with ICE detainers, which are not subject to judicial review) and in principle, going out of his way to reassure those in his jurisdiction who might be targeted by ICE not to worry. “The day after Trump was inaugurated, there was a palpable fear in people,” he recalls. “I made a point to let people know that local law enforcement is not the enemy. As long as you live by the rules and don’t commit any violent crimes, you’re not going to get any hassle from me. My family are immigrants from Sicily. I understand these people are trying to make their lives better.”
That’s opposite to the sheriff of nearby Garfield County, Lou Vallario, who is outspoken about his right-wing positions in videos and Facebook posts. About immigration, for example, he wrote, “I oppose ‘sanctuary’ policies.... I believe anyone who is in this country illegally and is committing crimes should be deported.” He went on to acknowledge, however, that “my personal feelings aren’t always compatible with what I am legally allowed to enforce.” (Vallario was unavailable for comment.)
How many undocumented workers do Aspen businesses employ? That’s a difficult question to answer. “The reality is very little data on undocumented immigrants exists,” says Stephan Weiler, professor of economics at Colorado State University and director of its Regional Development Economic Institute.
Klug takes a pragmatic view when asked to make an estimate. “We know there are around 11 million undocumented people in this country,” he says. “We can assume a fair number are living and working in Colorado, and they’re probably working in resorts. We don’t know who they are. We know they’re working because they’re needed, because they want to work, and because employers need them.”
The salon where Alejandra worked closed last year, and her former boss has moved on. These days, she cleans houses in Aspen with her mother. After spending all her savings on the lawyer whom she believed would help her get DACA, Alejandra learned that her application was never completed or filed. “I’d heard you could go online and do it yourself, but I never did,” she says. “I lost hope.” She worries about “bad people” and feels vulnerable to those who could use her status against her.
“Now I don’t know where I’ll end up,” she admits. “There’s nothing I can do. I just have to have faith that I’m a good person and everything will work out the way it’s meant to be.”