Administrators at The Vanguard School, a charter high school in District 12, had no idea what they were getting into when they decided to hire a German citizen to teach their German and Spanish foreign language classes as well as English classes.
“He can teach all three classes,” said Diane Borre, the school’s business manager. “We’re a small school and you need someone who can do multiple jobs like that.”
They thought everything was in order. But their attorney, Thomas Hurley with Hanes & Bartels, said the federal government reached its H1B visa cap just before the teacher was approved. That’s the visa program that allows skilled employees the temporary right to work in the United States. The country only grants 65,000 of those visas a year.
“The whole thing has been a nightmare,” Borre said. “If we had known how difficult it was all going to be, we probably wouldn’t have hired him.”
That sense of hopeless frustration is pervasive in nearly all corners of the community that deal with any type of immigration, Hurley said. And there are a lot of local employers who face these issues.
Hurley is hopeful, but not holding his breath, that a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the United States Senate last week could improve the situation for skilled workers waiting for visas, undocumented workers in the country now and the employers who rely on both.
While debate has slowed following the Boston Marathon bombings, the bill is still in play and many believe this is the right time for the legislation, said Annie Oatman-Gardner, who works in the local office for Democratic Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.
Following the recent election, there is a sense that Latino voters are essential to winning elections and immigration is the key to winning their votes.
The Senate bill proposes increased border security and wall reinforcement along with developing an e-verify system for employers that will make it easier for them to identify false documents and deny undocumented workers.
It would also create a pathway to citizenship that would require undocumented workers to pay fines and back-taxes before they could become eligible to start down a 13-year road to citizenship.
The legislation would also double the numbers of H1B and H2B visas for skilled and seasonal unskilled workers to about 120,000.
Few visas spell economic trouble
“I don’t think that’s enough,” Hurley said.
Studies have shown that there is demand for at least 200,000 visas a year, he said.
And there is so much pent-up demand that when the government opened its application process for H1B visas this year, all employers had to submit their applications in one five-day window. In those five days, the government received 85,000 applications for 65,000 visas, Hurley said. There’s a lottery underway and The Vanguard School doesn’t know yet if its application is even going to be considered.
Guidelines for skilled worker visas were much looser until 2000, Hurley said. And in 2003, a provision that allowed extra visas to be issued expired. The change hurt the local economy more than most people realize, Hurley said.
“When Colorado Springs was Silicon Mountain, it was amazing the high-tech industry that was here,” he said. If you look at Colorado, the figures were saying that one-third of the IT industry here was created by foreign nationals.”
He said that as it became more and more difficult for foreigners to work here, those companies relocated outside of the country.
“There were a lot of factors that led to our economic demise here in Colorado Springs,” Hurley said. “But that was probably one of them.”
It can take years to get a skilled worker visa for a mission-critical employee. And in a global marketplace, where businesses don’t have to be located in the U.S., the wait has impacted the economy, Hurley said.
Waiting for visas for unskilled seasonal employees has been a major frustration for local employers like The Broadmoor and Cheyenne Mountain Resort as well, Hurley said. He doesn’t represent either of them, but said he knows resorts like those rely on foreign employees who often work at similar resorts in places like Jamaica, where the popular season is opposite the high season in Colorado Springs.
Representatives from The Broadmoor and Cheyenne Mountain did not respond to requests for comment.
Undocumented workers slipping by
There’s an estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. And most of them are Latino, said Oscar Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American & Caribbean Communities.
That’s how immigration came to be such an important issue this year.
“We’re the hottest new political group,” Chacon said at a Colorado College forum on immigration reform last week. “The toughest thing will be to manage expectations when politicians are saying ‘without you there is no future.’ ”
While small in comparison to the population in the rest of the state, the Latino population has been growing in Colorado Springs, as evidenced by local school districts. The Hispanic population of Harrison District 2 has climbed to 29 percent and it’s more than 16 percent in Colorado Springs School District 11.
“We don’t have a lot of undocumented workers compared to Denver,” said Al Loma, a reverend, activist, former City Council candidate and member of the District 11 school board. “But they definitely are here.”
He said undocumented Latino workers are frequently employed in the trades in Colorado Springs. They are roofers and plumbers and work in all aspects of home construction.
And that’s just a fact when you work in the construction industry, said Wendel Torres, business development director for Beckrich Construction. Undocumented workers are part of the business.
“The problem you have is employers who know these guys are illegal but they hire them anyway because they do high-quality work and they’re inexpensive,” Torres said.
Beckrich is usually a primary contractor and hires subcontractors. Sometimes those subcontractors hire other subcontractors and there can end up being multiple layers of contracts, which means Beckrich ends up working with undocumented workers without even knowing it.
For federal contracts, which make up a lot of Beckrich’s business and a lot of business for most Colorado Springs builders, it can be a challenge. Contractors need certain people with certain skills in order to bid on big federal contracts. It’s always discouraging when some of the best workers have to bow out of those project bids. And eliminating the undocumented workers can make finding good labor more challenging, Torres said.
“If we could grant them some kind of amnesty, that would open a lot of opportunity up,” Torres said.
Taxes still paid through withholding
As a provision of the bill introduced last week, undocumented workers will have to pay penalties and back-taxes.
There are a lot of workers in Colorado Springs who are paid under the table or as independent contractors who don’t have taxes withheld, Torres said.
Oatman-Gardner said that will present a big challenge for workers and their employers across the country who have to go ask for proof they were paid over the years.
“And that will happen,” Hurley said. “But I think people would be surprised by how many workers will be able to show they have been paying taxes.”
He said someone comes to his office every year and asks if there is a way to get the tax refunds they’re due even though they made up their social security numbers. Hurley said many undocumented workers pay taxes through withholding, but will never receive social security benefits and have trouble getting their refunds when they overpay.
“It will be interesting to see how this plays out through debate,” Hurley said.