Guest Wishes

Helen Krieble wants to end all the horsing around over illegal immigration.

In 1992, Krieble's love of horses brought her to Colorado, where she bought a farm in Parker. She's since turned it into the public, non-profit Colorado Horse Park, which aims to promote the history and heritage of the West using the horse as a teaching tool, "because the horse is the symbol of the West."

The Krieble Foundation made the move to Colorado, too. From the start, it was dedicated to public policy, in particular advancing democratic capitalism -- since that's where its assets came from. During the Clinton years, the foundation and its single employee focused on national security issues, especially America's vulnerability to a missile attack. But after 9/11, when security became the national priority and many other organizations took up the cause, the foundation shifted its focus to immigration and migrant-worker issues.

By now, Krieble had lots of experience looking for workers at the horse park -- and plenty of opinions on the subject. "Over the years, we've hired a couple of U.S. citizens, high-school kids and stuff. And the quality of their labor is so appalling we have to fire them," she says. "We advertise and advertise and advertise. And we get a couple of people in. And most of them are Hispanic people who have false documents that are clearly not legal."

Ismael has been working -- illegally -- on the same 
northern Colorado farm for years.
Luke Turf
Ismael has been working -- illegally -- on the same northern Colorado farm for years.

Still, Krieble suspects that at some point, she might have been duped by more sophisticated fakes. She didn't want that to happen again. "We looked at these documents people were giving us, and we couldn't tell," she remembers. "We didn't want the responsibility of having illegals. I mean, who wants to be on the wrong side of the law? Who wants to have the government come with dogs and chains to your facility to round up people and then criminalize you? It's inconceivable that an employer would want to have an illegal."

About six years ago, she decided to start bringing in legal workers from Mexico.

The federal government's annual limit for seasonal, non-agricultural H-2B visas -- used for jobs at places like horse parks and ski resorts -- has been 66,000 since the visa category was established in the early '90s. Renewals of existing visas do not count toward the limit, but competition for new H-2Bs is fierce and the process painful.

Krieble's general manager starts filling out the paperwork for the next season while this year's workers are still at the equestrian center. The process begins with an application to the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment; if the state agency determines that the request is legitimate, it assigns the application a number. Then the horse park is required to advertise the job -- which it does for three straight days in the Denver dailies, advertising maintenance and groundskeeping duties at $12.90 an hour.

Some years, not a single person applies. Other years, those who do are illegals -- or people who don't want the work after they see what the jobs entail.

After the ad runs, the horse-park manager mails it back to the labor department, along with the resumés of anyone who applied for the job and subsequently turned it down. All of that material is forwarded to the U.S. Department of Labor, where the facility's application for foreign workers is accepted or denied. If it's accepted, it moves on to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, where it is again accepted or denied. If accepted this final time, the application becomes a formal petition granting the employer's request to bring in guest workers.

But the process is still far from over.

Now that the manager has official permission to reach out to the U.S. consulate in Mexico -- the country Krieble likes to target for workers -- he must go to Mexico for a couple of days. There he attends interviews at the consulate with potential workers, paying for their hotel rooms and buying them bus tickets to Colorado if all goes well.

Antonio Hernandez Acave was one of eight workers whom the Colorado Horse Park brought in from Mexico this past year. Between the ads, the travel, the application fees and bank charges, it costs Krieble at least $1,000 to import each worker from Mexico -- and that's before she begins paying his wages or insurance.

Krieble doesn't have problems with the cost so much as she does the cumbersome process. And so, true to her capitalistic roots, she began working on a solution that would allow the free market to run a guest-worker program. Her idea is described in "Two Paths to Safety: A Private Sector Initiative to Break the Illegal Immigration Deadlock," a Krieble Foundation position paper that suggests a solution to the problems of illegal immigration, border security and undocumented workers.

"We are spending money that we should never be spending on border security," she says, "not realizing that the guest-worker program is what makes border security reasonable."

Because without a viable guest-worker program, the border will never be secure against people like Ismael.

Thirty-nine-year-old Ismael works the same fields in northern Colorado that braceros used to work. He first snuck across the border in 1999. It was easy: One of the ten friends he was traveling with had made the journey before and knew the way. They all just walked to the end of a wall that blocked a rural Mexican town from rural Arizona and climbed across. Ismael worked in Colorado for six months -- picking and boxing cabbage, peeling sweet corn, digging up onions -- then returned to Mexico with a few thousand dollars.

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