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As influx of people from Latin America continues, Colorado leaders want more migrants in temporary jobs

“Our newest arrivals are seeking a hand up, not a handout,” says Colorado Governor Jared Polis
US construction spending tumbled in April
Posted at 5:41 PM, Jul 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-02 13:11:04-04

DENVER — Colorado leaders want the federal government to do more to expedite the process of work authorization visas for incoming migrants from Central and South America, arguing the move would save taxpayers money in the long run and help state businesses along the way.

One such business is CoCal Landscape, which Jesus “Chuy” Medrano has owned for more than 30 years.

“Even though the economy is kind of tough, we're succeeding. We find ways to become more efficient, especially with good hands,” Medrano said.

But good hands are hard to come by. Medrano has tried everything to attract new hires.

“I'm not against hiring local help. I love it,” he said. But over the years, he's had to rely more and more on foreign workers.

Jay Rezendes, one of the employees CoCal has hired from abroad, said “we come to contribute to the state, to the country and the company, so that we can all grow together.”

CoCal hires foreigners through the H2B visa program: One of the United States’ almost two dozen types of temporary work authorizations.

More than half of Colorado's H2B workers are landscapers. Most others work in housekeeping, construction, ski resorts and hotels.

“H2B, I hope that never goes away. We need it,” Medrano said.

And he isn’t the only Coloradan who thinks so.

With thousands of migrants arriving in Denver this year, the cost of shelter and other services is adding up. Colorado, and the city and county of Denver, have spent more than $31 million to help more than 13,000 migrants since last December. When migrants aren't allowed to work, nonprofits and taxpayers support them.

But many of Colorado's top officials see an opportunity for these migrants to work, and support themselves, while they wait for their day in immigration court.

“We have people in this country who want to work, we have businesses who want to hire them, and we have a federal government who won’t get out of the way to let those employers hire those people who want to get to work,” Denver's newly elected Mayor Mike Johnston said while running for office.

Governor Jared Polis and Colorado’s two U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet also support hiring migrants for temporary jobs.

In May, Governor Polis and Senators Hickenlooper and Bennet sent letters to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security asking the federal government to give out more work authorizations faster, so migrants can support themselves while moving through the legal process.

“Our newest arrivals are seeking a hand up, not a handout,” Polis said.

If migrants get permission to work, it could save taxpayers money on providing services, the Senators said.

It could also fill a labor shortage in the state.

Colorado's labor market is currently the tightest it’s ever been. For every unemployed Coloradan, there are 2.7 open jobs. That's part of why inflation is so high. It also has Colorado missing out on $46 billion in GDP this year, according to the Common Sense Institute, a Colorado-based think thank that conducts research examining the impacts of policies, initiatives, and proposed laws on Coloradans.

This week, Sen. Hickenlooper introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate aimed at empowering governors to request additional H2B visas from the federal government. If passed, the law would enable governors in states experiencing labor shortages to ask for more visas, which could be limited to specific jobs and economic development districts within the state.

Some critics argue temporary work programs weaken work protections for U.S. citizens, lower their wages and reduce their job opportunities.

But Alexandre Padilla, an economist at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said migrants generally benefit our economy.

“Temporary workers take jobs that Americans don't want to do for the price, for the wages offered,” Padilla said.

Temporary workers pay taxes, much like U.S. workers do, but they don’t collect benefits or qualify for unemployment. Immigrants living in Colorado contributed more than $5.5 billion in taxes in 2019, according to the American Immigration Council.

When temporary workers fill lower-level jobs, they often help create more supervisor or management positions for U.S. citizens, Padilla said.

Ultimately, when U.S. businesses don’t have access to temporary migrant workers, “everybody is paying a price,” Padilla said, because employers need to raise wages and consumers need to pay more for products and services.

“The more difficult you make it for employers to hire temporary workers, and the more costly it becomes, the more difficult it is for them to do their jobs,” Padilla said.

While Colorado wants more temporary workers, it’s up to the U.S. Congress or the Joe Biden administration to pass legislation or create new regulations to allow for more hires.

The way it works now, asylum seekers need to wait at least 180 days — roughly half a year — before they can get permission to work. Other temporary work programs, like H2B, limit how many workers companies can hire each year.

Still, Colorado business owners like Medrano are holding out hope that more work authorizations are coming soon.

“It's a win-win because if I get more hands, then I'm going to do more business,” he said.

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