On Sunday, the Craig Daily Press and the Steamboat Pilot & Today completed their joint six-part series, "Crossing the Line: Immigration in Northwest Colorado."
Some readers saw the series as a valuable service that told the stories of the sacrifices immigrants make to come to this country. Others saw the series as a tremendous disservice that wrongly glorified illegal immigration.
Such responses, although perhaps expected, were not sought. Rather, our intent was to explore in-depth the reasons for our rapidly growing immigrant population, the social and economic issues that immigration has created and the potential solutions to those issues.
Estimates are that anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent of Craig's population is now made up of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The vast majority of those are recent immigrants with limited English skills. In Steamboat Springs, estimates put the population at about 5 percent, or fewer than 500 people. But it is important to note that an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the immigrants in Craig commute to work in Steamboat.
And the nature of our Northwest Colorado economy means that immigrant workers likely will continue seeking work in Steamboat's expanding resort and construction industries and continue seeking to live in Craig, where housing remains vastly more accessible.
Such realities are impossible to ignore. Thus, it seems pointless to debate whether we should have Mexican and Central American immigration to Northwest Colorado, and focus instead on how best to deal with the Mexican and Central American immigration that we do have.
Some of our suggestions:
n Encourage leadership and volunteerism from within the Hispanic community. The work of people such as Isidro Quezada of Craig and Liliana Rojas of Steamboat is critical to peacefully integrating different cultures. Quezada, who immigrated to the United States illegally more than 25 years ago and is now a legal resident, has helped countless immigrant families in Northwest Colorado with job placement, housing and language and cultural interpretation. Rojas, a more recent legal immigrant from Colombia, is providing similar services in Steamboat.
n Support the efforts of Communidad Integrada, a recently organized nonprofit that has made significant inroads in matching English-speaking local residents with Spanish-speaking immigrants to help bridge the cultural divide.
n Continue to push all area school districts to provide adequate English as a Second Language services. Moffat County, which has the largest population of English Language Learners, has had a successful ESL program in place for years. We are encouraged that other area school districts are following suit. This summer, the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Education Services employed an ESL coordinator who will work with the Steamboat, Hayden and Soroco districts.
n Support the efforts of Colorado Northwestern Community College and Colorado Mountain College, whose adult job training and language courses are vital to immigrant workers.
n Challenge area industries that employ immigrant workers to meet the moral obligation of assisting those workers obtain not only the skills they need to do their jobs, but also the skills they need to live in a foreign land.
n Remove obstacles to accessing adequate health care, law enforcement and education services. No one benefits if illegal immigrants are made to feel they must choose between reporting crimes or accessing emergency health care and being deported.
On a national scale, immigration and the security of our border with Mexico are among the most pressing debates facing our country. There are no easy answers. But we should not allow the national debate to cloud what is happening on a local scale. The demographics of our communities are changing and likely will continue to do so. Our challenge is to accommodate such change in ways that enhance, rather than polarize, our neighborhoods, our communities and our region.