By Andrew Kensley

Forget what you think you know from cable news commentary and online echo chambers. With help from those on the front lines of NoCo’s immigration situation, we get to the heart of the matter.

The practice of seeking better lives, wherever it takes us, isn’t abating anytime soon.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank, 43.3 million immigrants were living in the United States in 2015, or just over 13 percent of the total population. While this represents about a 30 percent increase since 2000, the number has remained relatively stable over the last 15 years.

Your state is home to over half a million immigrants—legal and otherwise.

“It’s not possible for any country to exist without a certain proportion of people that are not citizens,” says Kimberley Medina, a Fort Collins immigration attorney. “And it’s easy to say, ‘Go home, we don’t want you here if you’re illegal.’ But you’re never going to keep people confined and isolated. For every 20- foot wall there’s a 21-foot ladder.”

The inherently human element of migration makes it perilous to filter the issue down purely to statistics. Humans move, most of the time with families in tow. Family bonds don’t just automatically acquiesce to borders or visas or federal statutes.

Here in America, the next generation wastes no time in adopting their new land. According to Pew Research studies, the 20 million U.S.-born adult children of immigrants tends to earn more money, hold more high school and college diplomas, and own more homes than their parents. They are more likely than their parents to speak English and to associate with people outside their ethnic or racial group, and tend to value hard work more than natives as a whole.

“A lot of people think we come here to just chill and relax, but I want to go to school and find a better job, because it’s going to make the future better for our family,” says Isabella, an undocumented 30-year-old Greeley resident. Originally from Juarez, Mexico, Isabella (who requested we not use her real name) was brought to the U.S. as a child. “We want to have everything other people have.”

Assuming consistency in current immigration trends and birth rates, Pew estimates that America’s “immigrant stock” (first and second generations combined) could more than double from its current number of 76 million to 160 million by 2050. That would equate to nearly 40 percent of the country’s population by that point.
It’s an issue that affects communities throughout Colorado, and yet the conversations surrounding it are rife with misinformation and strongly charged emotions. We spoke to those on NoCo’s front lines of immigration—from law enforcement officers and county clerks to immigration lawyers and immigrants themselves—to put together something of a primer to take you beyond the numbers.

Hop on board. No passport required.

Getting legal “the right way” isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.

What you may already know:
In so many conversations, people ask why immigrants don’t “just apply” for citizenship to be “legal” and do the right thing, as if it’s an item on a forgotten to-do list.

But getting legal status is a long, expensive and onerous process. “It’s heartbreaking to see someone who’s trying to do the right thing and not be able to do it,” says Medina. “People here would do anything and pay anything to legalize their immigration status.”

A petition for an alien relative costs $535; for a worker it’s $700; plus extras for fingerprints, background checks, a physical exam by a certified immigration physician, transportation, etc. All told, before legal costs, a person with presumably no means to legally earn money here can end up having to pony up a thousand dollars just to apply. If there are any delays, complications or legal issues requiring an attorney, those additional fees generally range from $1,000 on up per filing.

What you probably don’t:
How long does it really take? If a legal U.S. resident who emigrated from Mexico had an adult child who also wished to submit an application for permanent status, the wait time would be approximately 21 years, based on data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website. This assumes that all documentation was submitted correctly and on time, and the person had a squeaky clean criminal record.

“For most people, there is no line,” Medina says —meaning if they are here illegally, they cannot apply for legal status. “And for those that can get in line, it’s very, very long.”

One enormous barrier, the attorney points out, is that aspiring legal residents who voluntarily present themselves to officials are required to return to their home country for 10 years before they can return to the U.S. legally.

“This happens all the time,” Medina says, offering an example. “An employer comes into my office and says, ‘I just found out that the manager of my ranch is undocumented and he’s been with me 20 years and I want to fix his status. What do I do?’ I tell him he has to send him back to Mexico for 10 years.”

Certain circumstances can provide a waiver on this rule, but one has to prove that their removal would create “extreme suffering and hardship” to their American spouse if they were to leave for an extended period of time. “Extreme hardship,” Medina clarifies, “doesn’t mean you’ll really miss your wife.”

The government has to draw the line somewhere, so it’s unsurprising that entry permits and visas are subject to yearly quotas, which tend to get filled as fast as they open up. Medina acknowledges that “having a reasonable and humane immigration system doesn’t mean you can’t have political borders or laws.” But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) simply doesn’t have enough manpower to process the tens of thousands of applications it receives every year from even a small percentage of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States.

There are short-term costs—and long-term gains.

What you may already know:
First-generation immigrants tend to be less educated than the overall native population, according to the Pew Research surveys. And because education level consistently correlates with earning potential and, ultimately, financial status, it should come as no surprise, then, that first-generation immigrants cost the U.S. around $57 billion, according to a recent report by 14 leading economists, demographers and other Ivy League scholars.

What you probably don’t:
In September 2016, a large panel of independent economists, convened by the National Academies of Sciences, estimated the fiscal impact of immigrants over a 75-year period by examining economic trends and how they are impacted by a number of factors. Educated immigrants, it turns out, are good for business.

The authors concluded that the net economic contribution of an immigrant with a bachelor’s degree to his or her adopted nation is over $200,000 (think of it like, say, a cover charge to enter the country); contrast that with one whose highest education level is high school or less, which ends up costing a country, on average, $115,000. (The same metrics measuring level of education and economic contribution can be applied to U.S. citizens, too.)

This is certainly related to the fact that one in four recent immigrants to the U.S. has less than a high school diploma, which tends to result in lower salaries, less money to churn back into the economy, and ultimately a need for more financial help. Immigrant families with children, the report found, are also more likely to rely on Medicaid than other families with children.

Along similar lines, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, estimated that the average undocumented immigrant household received about $25,000 in government benefits and services (such as roads, schools, public facilities like parks and libraries), which may end up translating to a cost of about $15,000 per year to taxpayers.

Wait a couple of decades, though, and the numbers start to morph. Second-generation immigrants, having had opportunities for educational and professional advancement, tend to contribute about $30 billion a year to the economy, the researchers discovered. By the third generation, that number swells to about $223 billion.

“The prospects for long-run economic growth in the United States,” the National Academies authors concluded, “would be considerably dimmed without the contributions of high-skilled immigrants.”

This is what immigrant labor means to us.

What you may already know:
Most American employers (at least the ones to whom we reached out for this story) won’t admit to it, but statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that about five percent of Colorado’s total workforce is employed illegally.

Data from Pew Research also suggest that undocumented aliens currently account for about a third of all American drywall workers and roofers; 30 percent of farm workers; one in four painters, brick and stonemasons, maids and house cleaners; and about 10 percent of software developers. Colorado’s numbers fall roughly in line with national figures.

Medina doesn’t shy away from what many of us may be thinking.

“We’re living this huge hypocrisy where we know that whoever picked the fruit on our table, the person that cleaned our hotel room, the guy fixing potholes or the janitor cleaning our kid’s school may not be documented,” she says. “And we’re all okay with that.”

What you probably don’t:
Unemployment is at historically low levels, and the U.S. job market is booming. Despite the continued uptick in labor demands, American companies seeking temporary immigrant workers currently have but one legal avenue to obtain them: the H-2A or “guest worker” program. For the first quarter of 2017, the Department of Labor approved about 70,000 H-2A applications for farm jobs, up 36 percent from the same period last year.

Employers desiring to employ H-2A workers must first demonstrate that efforts to recruit American workers were unsuccessful. They must disclose specific dates and job descriptions, provide free housing and pay a fair wage as determined by the Department of Labor.

This practice can, in theory, lead to resentment from prospective native employees, mostly for skirting wage and benefit requirements. And according to the National Academies study, the practice of hiring immigrants for lower-skilled jobs may end up driving down wages of native workers with comparable skills, an expected consequence of increased labor supply. But Randy Hamilton, a fourth-generation farmer in Rocky Ford, Colorado, is unequivocal in his assessment of H-2A’s value to the agricultural industry.

“There would not be a produce business in the Arkansas Valley without H-2A workers,” Hamilton says. “All the farmers have to use them because nobody else will do it. Literally, if we didn’t know we could get H-2A workers we wouldn’t even grow the crops.”

All of which raises the question many people are asking: Are immigrants crowding native-born Americans out of the labor market?

In 2010, the United Farm Workers (UFW) tested the theory that job-hungry Americans would be eager to fill these low-paying and physically demanding positions with a “Take Our Jobs” campaign. The UFW says it’s still seeking applicants, but according to a representative from the organization, in eight years the number of job applications they’ve received from Americans is—wait for it—16.

“Anybody that’s not H-2A gets first shot if they want to work,” Hamilton says. “But they don’t work. It’s no fun bending over picking cantaloupes all day in 100-degree heat, seven days a week. These people are taking jobs nobody else wants to take. They’re working hard all week, and every one of them’s got a smile on their face when they cash their check on Friday. You never see that on a farm worker.”

DACA is about more than amnesty.

What you may already know:
It’s highly likely that you’ve interacted with one of America’s 800,000 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients. They probably spoke perfect English and were indistinguishable from any other American-born teen or young adult.

Candidates for the program, designed to give education and work permits to undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, were required to meet a number of strict guidelines, including attending (or having already completed) at least high school. If a DACA recipient proved to be a threat to public safety or national security, or was convicted of certain crimes, they remained eligible for deportation. The program does not offer the possibility of obtaining permanent legal status; it is instead an exercise of discretion by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that grants temporary legal presence and employment authorization. Recipients must pay a fee to apply and are granted deferred deportation action for two years, at which point they must re-apply for DACA status to be renewed.

“These are kids that are employed, going to college, opening businesses, really contributing to this country,” says Medina. “Someone who came here when they were six months old has no ties to their country [of birth]. This is their country.”

What you probably don’t:
In August 2017, the Center for American Progress (CAP) published a summary of its findings relating to DACA’s effects thus far. Based on a survey of over 3,000 “Dreamers,” as they are known, here are a few of its findings:

• More than half of DACA recipients were under the age of seven when they arrived in the U.S.
• About 90 percent of respondents said they currently held jobs.
•36 percent of DACA recipients over age 25 already have a bachelor’s degree.
• 72 percent are currently enrolled in higher education.
• Their average hourly wage had increased about seven dollars an hour from before receiving DACA.

The current administration continues to discuss rolling back protections for DACA recipients, citing the protection of American workers and jobs. But their reasoning runs into some problems when one considers that this cohort tends to be more educated and employed in higher-skilled jobs than the majority of undocumented workers.

Economists across the board agree that drastically reducing the number of skilled and educated workers (remember, we’re talking about almost a million people here) would be significantly detrimental to our economy, given that job openings in the U.S. are at an all-time high and unemployment levels are at an all-time low among the college-educated. CAP estimated that if DACA were terminated, the U.S. would lose about $460 billion in GDP over the next 10 years.

And what of the idea of native-born Americans losing jobs to foreigners? According to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, this theory has already been disproven. (The economics world calls it the “lump of labor fallacy.”) Competition in the labor force, say the numbers from several decades of research, actually leads to long-term employment gains, not reductions, regardless of where the workers come from.

Immigrants give and take, like everyone else.

What you may already know:
Federal programs like Medicaid, Social Security, and unemployment benefits depend on regular contributions from taxpayers. To be eligible for such assistance, one must be a lawful permanent resident for at least five years with a valid social security number. For most legal U.S. residents or citizens, this means having taxes withheld from their paychecks, then cashing in as they slide gracefully into their golden years.

And yes, some people—both legal and illegal—try to game the system.

What you probably don’t:
Medina points out, accurately, that many undocumented immigrants actually reside on the “donor” side of such contributions, with no chance of ever being a “recipient.”

Because immigrant demographics tend to be disproportionately skewed toward working-age folks, we shouldn’t underestimate their contribution to society.

“Undocumented people pay sales tax, and, if they own a home, they pay real estate tax as well,” Medina says. “Some even have taxes taken out of their checks, because if they work they have to give an ITIN number.”

Individual Tax ID Numbers enable nonresident aliens that are by definition ineligible to receive a SSN, to comply with U.S. tax laws. (ITINs are not, however, an official authorization to work.) A secondary benefit for the undocumented population is that having an ITIN helps users to establish “good moral character” (ostensibly by ponying up for Uncle Sam) in the eventual hopes of becoming a citizen.

How much money, collected from undocumented immigrants’ paychecks, might be sitting in the U.S. government’s social security fund, you ask?
Better sit down.

Estimates from both sides of the aisle put the number at anywhere between 12 and 17 billion dollars. A 2016 study by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, which tends to lean left, estimated that undocumented immigrants paid $11.64 billion in state and local taxes in 2013, a number confirmed by the Social Security Administration. This included taxes on goods and services, property and personal income. The conservative Heritage Foundation found that the average undocumented immigrant household paid $10,334 in taxes in 2010, which equates to about $17.6 billion collected.

Now, let’s pry open another squeaky door.

Surely you’ve heard talk around the water cooler of the rampant practice of undocumented people using fake social security numbers to obtain federal benefits. While it no doubt does occur, according to a clerk at the Larimer County social security office who spends her days processing applications for federal benefits, it’s more rare than you think.

“We see a few cases where people don’t report their income accurately (to obtain Medicaid benefits) and there’s no way for us to verify it,” says Diane, who requested we not use her real name. “It can take a year, maybe a couple years for us to find out that they may still be getting benefits that they may not qualify for anymore. But it’s not everybody.”

Yes, some immigrants are criminals.

What you may already know:
Part of the role of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is to identify, detain and deport unauthorized immigrants, to the tune of about 400,000 annually. President Trump has pledged to deport two to three million unauthorized immigrants per year, regardless of criminal history. However, the immigration court system is already facing an enormous backlog of over half a million cases; the average wait time for a removal hearing is 675 days.

What you probably don’t:
Numerous studies over the past 20 years, including one recent one in the Annual Review of Criminology, which examined findings from more than 50 studies published between 1994 and 2014, have repeatedly concluded that there is no evidence that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants. One study actually showed that cities with historically high immigration levels are actually likely to enjoy reduced crime rates.

Still, we’ve been deporting the ones that are criminals for years.

Based on the most recent publicly available DHS numbers, MPI estimates that 820,000 of the approximately 11 million undocumented people living in this country had criminal convictions, the same ratio for native-born Americans. And between 2003 and 2013, the U.S. deported almost four million people, according to MPI.

This is partly due to an initiative introduced by former President Obama called the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), whereby criminals, public-safety threats, recent border crossers and people with outstanding deportation orders were identified as the main targets. Also already in use before Mr. Trump took office is an information-sharing program known as Secure Communities, where biometric data (like fingerprints) can be provided to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by local law enforcement officers if requested.

Statistics from ICE’s website prove that criminal aliens are being dealt with. Over 90 percent of the 65,000 interior removals (people already inside the U.S.) in 2016 were previously convicted of a crime. Three of every five deportations in 2015 were classified as criminal, double the percentage from five years earlier.

“I know there are bad Mexican people, like drug dealers, but we’re not all like that,” says Isabella. “It’s like when people say that all cops are bad because they’re killing people, and, because of one cop they want to blame the whole police force. There’s good people and bad people, and you can’t judge everyone by what one person did.”

Deportations are strictly a federal matter.

What you might already know:
The threat of mass deportations, valid or not, has made people afraid.

“When you say you’re going to deport 13 million people, you’re talking about ripping apart a big whole in the social fabric, no matter what community,” Medina says. “[Undocumented] people are more fearful of contacting law enforcement, of reporting crimes, of reporting abuse, of taking their kids to school, participating in school events, of applying for medical benefits that their children need.”

But Larimer County Sherriff Justin Smith affirms that local law enforcement’s job is to maintain public safety and trust for everyone in its jurisdiction, regardless of status—not to provide a helping hand to the feds. “Nobody has data around here to suggest that local law enforcement has taken victims of crimes and called immigration and got them deported,” Smith says.

What you probably don’t:
Sherriff Smith is, expectedly, accountable to the rule of law. To that end, he cooperates with ICE, he says, the same way he would with any and all federal law enforcement agencies, from the ATF to the FBI to the IRS.

“It is standard protocol for all fingerprint data taken from anyone arrested to be automatically sent to the FBI and to ICE,” Smith says. “It’s also standard protocol for all of our officers to request identification of anyone being questioned, whether victim, suspect or witness, to check for warrants, or parole or probation status. My officers do not, as a rule, inquire about or verify someone’s immigration status. However, there are certain circumstances when knowing someone’s nationality may be a legitimate question.”

While Smith reports that his department has never been involved in immigration raids, he does acknowledge that they get the occasional request from ICE to detain someone, and estimates about 30 such cases last year. Nevertheless, federal jurisdiction remains limited.

“We’ve had our differences in opinion with ICE in the last nine months,” Smith admits. He points to a recent demand that local law enforcement agencies hold pretrial inmates for up to 48 hours even after a judge has authorized their release. But neither he nor his officers have legal authority to do so without an official reason.

Sherriff Smith doesn’t deny that some in the immigrant community may be afraid. He does question, though, whether it’s any more than usual. For example, he posits that foreign citizens with different experiences with local police may not look to American law enforcement as their ally, and may be inherently less inclined to trust them. If police are to be truly feared in their home country, there could be some trust issues embedded already. “It would then be reasonable,” he says, “to expect that same fear,”

In the end, Smith considers himself a fair and proud advocate for all his constituents. “As soon as I see someone leaning toward the anti-immigrant mentality, they’ve lost me,” he says. “Remember, we’re a nation built up of immigrants.”