Guest Wishes

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

A muddy path leads up to the equestrian center, where Batman, Spider-Man, pirates and princesses trick-or-treat through a haunted horse stable.

Looking up from one of the 130 trash cans he's been dealing with all day, 52-year-old Antonio Hernandez Acave smiles at the fun, then returns to his job. He grabs the overflowing garbage bag and lifts it out of the can, ties the ends together, then pulls a replacement bag out of his back pocket. Whipping it open in the wind, he relines the can.

Although Hernandez has his hands full in Colorado, his mind is already on home.



When the party's over at the Colorado Horse Park in Parker, after all the kids have gone home to eat their candy, Hernandez will break down the folding chairs and tables he helped set up earlier. He'll empty and clean the port-a-potties, tend to the trash cans once more, stroll the grounds looking for any loose garbage. He may shovel some horseshit, too.

And then Hernandez will go back to the trailer that has been a temporary home for him and several other workers, including his 26-year-old son, since they arrived at the facility this spring. With the season finally over, Hernandez will fill his two backpacks and grab the little television he brought with him, and then he and his son will head for the bus.

Forty-eight hours later, they'll be back in Veracruz, Mexico.

But if Hernandez's God and his boss, Helen Krieble, are willing, next year he'll return to Colorado.

For years now, Krieble has hired people from outside the country to do the horse park's worst work. She always looks for American workers first, but few seem to want these low-paying, far-from-glorious jobs. Plenty of illegal immigrants apply every year, but Krieble refuses to break the law by hiring them.

"We need a guest-worker program, badly, to eliminate all these illegal people who are coming in here," Krieble says. "Then we wouldn't need that damn fence that they're building on the border."

Krieble opts to import laborers from Mexico -- legally. The process is a bureaucratic headache that eats up dollars and time, both for Krieble's staff and the state and federal government officials charged with monitoring the program. And at any point along the way, a prospective worker could fall through the cracks for something as simple as folding a form wrong. But right now, Krieble says, she has no choice if she wants to do things the right way.

She knows there's a better way. And rather than wait for the government to propose a guest-worker plan, Krieble has come up with her own proposal. It's caught the attention of not just Governor Bill Owens, but also senators and representatives. From her equestrian center in Parker, the 63-year-old Krieble has even gained the ear of presidential advisors. But are they really listening?

During World War II, when the United States was sending all of its able-bodied men overseas, hundreds of thousands of American jobs were left empty. In desperate need of workers, the government looked south to fill the vacancies, and the Bracero program was born.

Millions of braceros -- named for the strong arms they provided -- left their families behind in Mexico and headed for the border, where they filled out an English-language contract that few of them could read. From there, they moved on to jobs around the country, mostly picking crops and laying rails. Even after the war ended, the program continued for another twenty years.

Today, more than forty years after the program's demise, some Colorado farmers still get nostalgic about the braceros whenever the immigration debate comes up. But the memories of the workers themselves are not so fond. Many say they lived in horrid conditions and had little or no rights. Under the program, every worker had 10 percent of his wages withheld; the money was supposed to go into a retirement plan back in Mexico. The funds were transferred down south, but not a dime ever made it into the hands of the braceros or their families, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in 2001.

Helen Krieble wasn't hiring workers in those days. She learned what it was like to be a guest worker in a foreign country when her then-husband got a job with a chemical company in Japan in the '70s. Krieble moved there with him, and they put their toddlers in Japanese nurseries, ate Japanese food, shopped in Japanese stores, watched Japanese movies and lived a Japanese life.

In 1985, Krieble was living in Connecticut, the head of an art gallery. That's when she and an aunt founded the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, named for Krieble's grandfather, a chemist who perfected a sealant for metal parts. It kept nuts and bolts tight, and also allowed for the efficient confinement of liquid. With this invention as its base, Vernon Krieble and his son founded a corporation that grew to be the giant Loctite, which is still operating in eighty countries today, selling sealants for everything from snowboard screws to cars, computers, cell phones, vacuums, space shuttles and airplanes.

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."

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.

He had no trouble coming back to Colorado in 2000. But in 2001, even before 9/11, border security was beefing up. The trip that year cost Ismael $1,000. He walked through the desert for four freezing nights and three deadly hot days. And like the hundreds of thousands who've made the trek across the desert, he was as afraid of la migra and desert bandits as he was of the snakes, scorpions and spiders. Still, he made it here, made his money and went home.

Crossing in 2002, Ismael saw the U.S. Border Patrol for the first time -- but they didn't see him. After that summer, he swore he'd never risk traveling the desert again just to make $6 an hour in Colorado, and he went back to his low-paying restaurant job in Mexico.

But as Ismael's children grew, so did their needs. The oldest of the three entered high school last year and had to have a computer. So this spring, Ismael again headed for el Norte. This time the trip cost $1,500 and required four nights and four days of hiking through the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation in Arizona. It wasn't yet summer, but the temperature was already high enough to kill a man. Ismael thought he just might be that man.

"You think about your family and your kids, your parents, your wife, everyone," he says. "It's so, so difficult, no? You get cold at night, so hot during the day, little water, little nourishment. You think of many things."

And then an airplane flew overhead. Soon after, a helicopter landed nearby and federal agents stormed the group, rounding up Ismael and the thirty or so others. Ismael was dropped off at the border, where he boarded a bus back to his village, $1,500 lighter. Back home, he borrowed another $1,500 to pay another smuggler, and 48 hours later he was back on the border. After another journey through the desert, he finally made it to the same farm in northern Colorado.

Every morning this summer, Ismael got up before sunrise. He fixed a bean burrito for breakfast and grabbed a can of tuna and an apple for lunch. Weather permitting, he was out in the fields until the sun went down, six days a week. He lived in close quarters with other workers, sharing scummy showers, port-a-potties, dirty refrigerators. For those who arrived early, there were beds; for the latecomers, floor space. If a worker stayed all season, the farmer didn't charge him rent.

The agricultural season is just about over, but Ismael can't go home yet. At $6 an hour, it took a lot of work just to cover his costs in getting here. Some of the other laborers are moving down to the citrus fields of Arizona, but Ismael worries that if he goes that close to the border, he'll be rounded up. So he's looking for work in Colorado, hoping to clear $10,000 before he leaves for Mexico -- because he doesn't want to return, ever.

Farmers can apply for seasonal visas for agricultural workers. Unlike with the H-2B visas that Krieble relies on, there's no limit to agricultural visas, or H-2As. Still, relatively few farmers apply for them. Ismael's boss says the process is too time-consuming and expensive to go through (it requires he pay for transportation and housing, among other things). This year, he wound up sixty to eighty workers short and had to let vegetables die on the vine.

That left more work for Ismael -- and he was eager to do it, despite the conditions. "We're like slaves without chains," he says.

Krieble would like to break the chains for both the workers and their employers.

"I have yet to meet a Mexican worker who wants to be illegal," she says. "They don't. Why would they? Why would they want to come across the border, risk their lives, to get to a job where they may be paid under minimum wage and have to live in a horse stall or some absolutely awful sub-level housing?"

On a hot day in August, about 300 people gathered at the Aurora City Council Chambers for a hearing on immigration hosted by Senator Wayne Allard. Last December, the U.S. House of Representatives had passed a bill that outlined an enforcement-only approach to immigration; in May, the Senate had passed a bill that included a guest-worker program and granted a pathway to citizenship for those already here, which critics decried as amnesty. But neither side of Congress had passed the other's bill.

The hearing was designed to find some common ground in very hotly contested political territory. A couple of spectators waved U.S. flags, and others wore red, white and blue shirts in solidarity. No one on either side of the debate was shy about expressing their opinions, and more than a dozen cops were working security.

Helen Krieble's name was included on the list of nine witnesses who would testify that day, all invited to do so by Allard. The testimony began with Governor Bill Owens, who cited studies that the Colorado Department of Education is spending $235 million on illegal-immigrant students and another $329 million on anchor-baby students. The state is also paying $25 million for illegal immigrants imprisoned here, he said, and about $3,500 for every additional anchor baby squeezed out.

"We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws," Owens said. As he wrapped up, he thanked Allard for listening -- and asked him to pay particular attention to testimony that would be coming later from Helen Krieble.

Before she got her turn at the mike, other witnesses tallied the costs of illegal immigration -- without providing much of a solution.

Aurora's mayor testified that detaining illegal immigrants who've committed crimes is such a burden on his budget that he could have a couple hundred extra cops, firefighters and teachers if he didn't have to cover those costs. True, he said, the undocumented workers pay sales taxes -- but they'd pay a lot more if they didn't send so much of their money home to Mexico.

Mesa County's district attorney told Allard that 60 percent of the crystal meth that leads to gun violence, murder, child neglect and other petty and violent crimes in Colorado is coming from Mexican drug organizations that are crossing the same border that the workers sneak over.

When Krieble's turn finally came, she pointed out that most of those workers would prefer not to sneak across the border. They, like most Americans, want a safe, legal system. "This issue is polarized far beyond what is necessary," she said.

Krieble estimated that at least 85 percent of illegal immigrants are far from criminals and pose no threat to anyone. If that 85 percent had a way to come across the border legally, she pointed out, then the Border Patrol would only have to deal with the remaining 15 percent -- the drug smugglers, convicted criminals and possible terrorists. The U.S. could then secure the border with existing manpower and infrastructure; no 700-mile wall would be needed.

To make sure this country can get the large number of legal workers it would need, Krieble's plan calls for the private sector to run the guest-worker program, which would be licensed by the government much the same way a gun shop is licensed. Offices set up in Mexico would charge an employer and a potential employee about $500 each. They'd run a background check on the employee, and if it came up clean, the employee would get a secure guest-worker card within a day or two and be on his way to a job in this country, knowing exactly what to expect in wages and conditions.

The back of the guest-worker card would have a magnetic strip, much like a credit card, that employers and law enforcement alike could read to verify such basic information as the person's name, the specified location of his job, and how long he had permission to stay in the country. The card would also have the worker's photo and fingerprints, to combat fraudulent cards. For employers who don't have machines capable of reading the cards, a phone line could be set up to confirm a cardholder's authenticity.

The government's only role in the process would be licensing the providers of the cards, checking up on them to prevent criminal exploitation, and taxing them.

Workers would be allowed to bring their families along, and those family members would be eligible for services funded by the taxes that the workers paid. Workers would also have more rights and protections than they do now, Krieble said, because the shops would act as middlemen. If an employee has an issue with a boss, he can request a transfer to a different employer. If an employer is abusing workers, it can be reported to the employment agency, which will channel the complaint to the appropriate government officials. And if an employee commits a crime or disappears from the worksite, the employer could report it to police and/or immigration authorities.

Such a program would provide employers with access to as many workers as they need, since the government would no longer limit the number of seasonal workers. Instead, that cap would be set by the market. Some years there might be 50,000 new guest workers; other years there could be a million. Competition between profit-driven agencies would ensure a fast, safe way to import cheap labor on a regular basis.

But before companies could import Mexican gardeners, nannies, cooks, maintenance men, waiters, bussers, field workers, housecleaners and construction workers, they'd first have to advertise those jobs to American workers -- partly to prove that no American is willing to do the work, partly to eliminate the under-the-table cash economy that currently exists.

"If you go to get a temporary worker, you are paying an enormous amount of money to bring them in. It gives the American worker every advantage in the world," Krieble said. "Who wants to go through all of that? Nobody. The only reason you would possibly go through all of that is you can't fill the job. People say they're taking jobs from Americans. No, they're not. It's that Americans won't do these jobs.

"And I'm sorry," she continued. "They say, 'Oh, yes, Americans will if you pay them right.' Well, you can't pay entry-level workers more than middle management. So let's get real about this. With entry-level jobs, the market is only able to bear a certain price."

Under Krieble's plan, all the laws that protect American workers would apply to guest workers -- Social Security, worker's compensation, minimum wage. She acknowledged that the program might cost employers more, but she also argued that the extra cost would be more than balanced by a steady, legal workforce. And the government could shift resources currently used to control seasonal visas to enforcing the laws already on the books against hiring undocumented workers.

Allard, who voted against the Senate immigration bill because of its amnesty provision, first heard about Krieble's plan from Representative Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana, and invited her to discuss it at the hearing.

"I think it has some distinct possibilities of being a compromise between the House and the Senate proposal," Allard says today.

Owens remains a fan. "The Krieble plan stands above others because it effectively addresses border-security concerns while also recognizing the real need for guest workers," he says.

With Congress deadlocked, the only measure designed to curb illegal immigration signed into law this year was a bill that allows building 700 miles of fence along the 2,000-mile border. When President George Bush signed that bill, he reiterated his rhetoric that an enforcement-only approach to immigration won't work and that there needs to be a comprehensive guest-worker program in this country.

A program like the one Krieble has devised.

Representative Pence and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas both credit Krieble with coming up with the plan they used as the foundation of their proposed guest-worker guidelines. Although neither Hutchison nor Pence introduced immigration-related legislation this past session, they've suggested that their plans could serve as a middle ground between the House and Senate proposals.

Krieble says she admires their courage for even suggesting a market-based plan, even if she doesn't agree with every element that's been added to her original vision. For example, she points out, requiring workers to learn English would increase a bureaucratic burden that should be minimized for people who only want to stay here a short time. "I didn't have to learn Japanese to go to Japan," she notes.

Estimates on the low end of the scale have about 12 million illegal immigrants in this country, 250,000 of them in Colorado, according to a 2005 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Over the past eight years, officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have arrested fewer than 11,000 people at work sites for immigration violations -- although arrests so far this year are almost triple the 2005 rate, according to the ICE.

An additional 1,200 criminal arrests have been made at work sites over the past eight years -- but that figure includes both illegal immigrants and their employers, and ICE can't say how many of those arrested were employers.

To get even a misdemeanor conviction for hiring illegal immigrants, the prosecution must prove that a company knowingly hired at least ten people in the country illegally within the past twelve months. A handful of cases have been prosecuted recently in Denver -- including a roofing company whose owner faced felony charges but pleaded to a misdemeanor, and a couple of harboring incidents involving Chinese restaurants -- but according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the agency doesn't have a database capable of determining the number of prosecutions and/or convictions of employers accused of hiring illegal immigrants. The Department of Justice is unable to provide those same numbers on a national level.

By adopting Krieble's guest-worker program, the issue of prosecuting employers would be rendered almost moot. And the problem of the 12 million undocumented people could be solved, too.

"Anyone in the United States can get to the Mexican border in two days," Krieble points out. "So jump in your darn car, go south with a bunch of friends to share the cost of gas. Make an appointment before you go so you know that you're going to be seen by that agency at a particular time. Go to your appointment. Run through the security check. Pick up your card the next day and come back. That's how hard it should be."

Certain assurances would have to be made. Workers without criminal histories will need to know that they can get back into the country and their previous illegal entry forgiven if they ever decide to apply for citizenship. Children would be registered family members of their guest-worker parents until they turn 21 -- at which point they'd have to have a job or be in school to renew their cards, and would have to leave the country to do so. With these policies in place, the undocumented population would suddenly have the incentive to get documented.

After a certain amount of time, there could be a round-up and mass deportation of those who still hadn't complied with the guest-worker plan. But since it would be so easy for anyone to comply, Krieble says, the only reason for non-compliance would be a criminal history.

"And no, it doesn't jump you into citizenship," she adds. "Why should you be able to jump some little man or woman who has sat in the line for eight years doing the process the correct way? Why should anybody -- just because they work here -- jump that line? I refer you to the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal under the law. This whole idea of taking a group of illegals and letting them jump the line is immoral, it's un-American. If you want to be U.S. citizen, there is a process. Go through it."

Krieble knows that process isn't smooth and can take up to a decade. But she has a plan for this, too. Once she's finished cleaning up the illegal-immigration mess, she's going to tackle citizenship.

The bus that takes Antonio Hernandez Acave and his 26-year-old son back to Veracruz will go by the papaya and lemon groves where Hernandez used to work a whole day to make what he makes in two hours working for Helen Krieble. This past season, he took only one and a half days off; he wanted to earn as much money as he could at the Colorado Horse Park. Maybe he'll take a couple of days off before he starts working on his house, but he'll probably be so excited, he'll get right back to it.

When the bus arrives in town, he'll grab his little television and two backpacks, and then he and his son will walk home -- past the house of an old friend who froze to death crossing the border through the desert highlands. Hernandez never had the money to pay a smuggler. Instead, he found Krieble.

Without his job in Colorado, Hernandez could never have bought the land where he's building his house. He could never plan for a future in his homeland. "It's the best opportunity of my son's life and of mine," Hernandez says. "It's great to come to the United States legally. A lot come illegally and say it's great, too, but it's more difficult getting here and getting work without documents."

For Krieble, too, doing the job right -- doing it legally -- is worth the extra effort. "We're just trying to get our jobs filled so we can keep our doors open," she says. "So please, help people. Help workers and help employers who want to be legal. Please help them to become legal with a sensible program before you set out to punish them."

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.