While debates and demonstrations on immigration issues make national news, advocates in La Plata County are helping immigrants living in the country illegally navigate through the morass of legal and employment issues that accompany the situation.
On Wednesday, the League of Women Voters of La Plata County got an update on the local immigration situation from Nicole Mosher, executive director of Los Compañeros Southwest Colorado Immigrant Resource Center, and Lindsay Marshall, an immigration lawyer with Colorado Legal Services.
If anything, they said, the pressures have become more intense on the population they serve, which comes primarily from Mexico and Central America.
“Last year, slightly more than 360 people called or came to Los Compañeros for help,” Mosher said. “This year so far, we’ve had more than 490.”
Mosher talked of the human cost of some policies: separating families, including spouses from each other and children from parents; deporting people after traffic offenses; and the loss of workers.
“Sometimes I run into people who say, ‘we have immigrants here?’” she said. “I say look in the alleys, the kitchens, housekeeping departments at hotels, on construction sites. It would be a serious impact for the state to lose these workers. Ranchers, restaurant owners and hotel owners want to help their workers, but we don’t have a way to do that.”
Opponents to any pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally make the argument that they should just go get a visa and get on the path to citizenship legally. That’s not so easy, Marshall said.
“The average person isn’t a highly skilled person being recruited,” she said, “so the visa process is based on the family situation. The wait time for the fastest visa, after the paperwork is approved and the fees are paid, is five years, but in general, it’s 20 or 25 years. People can’t wait that long to support their families.”
Colorado passed four laws last year that make the living situations for immigrants better, Mosher said, including the right to have a driver’s license. The law went into effect Aug. 1, but since the Department of Motor Vehicles funded only five offices to issue the licenses, it’s proved difficult to actually get one. The closest office for La Plata County residents is in Grand Junction.
“They had 40,000 applications right away, and it clogged their system,” Mosher said.
They both made the point that there are no easy answers in the immigration debate.
“A lot of advocates think that rather than a great overhaul of the system, which is either dead, or dormant, we may be best off making piecemeal changes by addressing certain fragile populations, such as children and victims of domestic violence,” Mosher said.