The Immigration Debate

Are immigrants a boon or a threat to Colorado's rural communities?

Since the Census Bureau released its most recent findings, the immigration debate has been reignited. Census 2000 data revealed pockets of Hispanics throughout the country, with some areas seeing as much as a 500 percent increase in their ethnic populations. In Colorado, immigration – particularly from Mexico – is predicted to continue at a high rate, says Dawn Thilmany, associate professor of agriculture business management. Whether that Hispanic influx is positive or negative depends on how you look at it. One perspective, says Thilmany, is to view immigration as a labor-market resource.

For more than a decade, Thilmany's research has focused on labor-market dynamics and the impacts of immigration and immigration policy on agriculture. She studies Hispanic populations in states that historically have depended most heavily on seasonal workers: Washington, California, Colorado, Texas, Utah, and other Intermountain states. If we prohibit people from crossing the border, she asks, will we have an adequate labor supply to sustain our communities and the economic prosperity to which we've become accustomed? "The choices we make about immigration policy affect the ability for a lot of ag producers to operate effectively, and that affects the health of rural communities," she points out.

Many Hispanics, Thilmany says, meet the demand for seasonal work. Recently, they've begun to work in food-processing plants too, which often are located in and near agricultural areas. Sometimes the jobs complement one another. "Once you get to harvesting, the next step is processing," Thilmany explains. Staying employed in one area benefits workers who previously pieced together jobs by moving from state to state. This trend also helps stabilize communities and ensure that farmers will have the laborers they need during the most critical times in the growing season.

The trend toward less migration solves some problems and raises others. "Some people aren't concerned about immigrants being here, because they feel these new employees accept jobs that other people wouldn't find attractive," says Thilmany. But others argue that the immigrants' use of government programs may cost more than the immigrants' contribution to the economy.

Are Hispanics likely to use welfare programs? According to Thilmany, the evidence suggests they're not. "Some research shows that communities that have higher Hispanic ratios actually tend to have lower rates of poverty. "She attributes that tendency to an ingrained work ethic. "Mexican communities actually send their most ambitious young people to the United States – those with the highest earning potential and strongest work ethic. So when they come here, they're usually here with true purpose."

It's difficult for immigrants to use our welfare programs. She adds "That would suggest that when they're here, they're making money. It may not be much above the poverty level, but they're far more willing to work at that borderline of the poverty level than most Americans are. That sounds controversial, but it also suggests there are some nice gains to be made from integrating Hispanics into rural communities where, typically, costs of living are low and unskilled jobs go unfilled."

The services that Hispanics are most likely to use, Temporary Aid for Needy Families, Women-InfantChildren, and schools – are those designed to help families assimilate and support the human capital they bring to the community, says Thilmany. "My research suggests that Hispanics have been a net benefit to the economy rather than a net cost."

In fact, Hispanics may be the lifeblood that will allow dying rural communities to survive. To stay employed year-round, many Hispanics are transitioning into resort-industry jobs during the cooler months. "They're staying within the state, but moving into different sectors, such as hotel and restaurant work," says Thilmany. Since many can't afford to live in resort towns, they're settling out in rural areas and commuting to their jobs.

"Depending on where you fall in the debate, it may be more attractive to have Hispanics buying houses and settling out, because it would suggest their potential to become long-term, community citizens who may invest more in the capital of their community, rather than being transitory. There's also evidence that this is one way that rural communities that were disappearing can now sustain themselves," Thilmany adds. .

"It's labor-market dynamics. We're not stopping immigration, and we never will. So the most effective integration of Hispanics into our economies and communities is probably in our long-term best interest."