Ski towns push back on immigration policies, but ‘Trump slump’ downplayed

Author: David O. Williams - October 24, 2017 - Updated: February 15, 2018

Leslie McWilliams of Colorado Springs skies off 12,441-foot Copper Peak Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, at Copper Mountain after five inches fell the night before at the Summit County resort. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

EAGLE-VAIL — There was a time when divisive social issues such as immigration, climate change and mental health were like a steep, icy, double black-diamond slope for ski companies and ski-town officials. They could handle it, but why go there when there’s more money in cruising the green runs?

The last thing tourists escaping crime, traffic and the everyday big-city rat race want to hear about on their ski vacation in the Colorado or Utah mountains is how the planet is warming, immigrants make resorts run better and people have mental problems even though they’re living in paradise.

An ordinance limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities may be a slam dunk in a city like Denver, but in ski towns like Vail, Aspen and Park City – reliant to some degree on deep-pocketed visitors from deep in Donald Trump country – opposing ICE can be risky business. As Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Aspen Skiing Company CEO Mike Kaplan took that risk last month, speaking out on Facebook against the Trump administration’s decision to end the DACA program protecting the young children of illegal immigrants – a position that generated significant support but also some calls for a Trump country boycott of Glitter Gulch.

In Vail and surrounding Eagle County, cops, prosecutors and some elected official differ on just how hard to push back against Trump’s immigration crackdown, debating the wisdom of a Denver-style resolution limiting cooperation with the feds.

Mexico and other Latin American countries make up a big chunk of the skier days at Vail and Aspen, and in a recent Wall Street Journal column, Kaplan cited a 30-percent drop in visitation by Mexicans last ski season, blaming the “xenophobia radiating from the Oval Office.”

Aspen Skiing has a history of activism, lobbying Congress on climate change and opposing Trump’s pullout from the Paris Accord – a stance echoed by typically more conservative industry rival Vail Resorts. Now both Vail and Aspen are supporting a marijuana sales tax ballot proposal in November to pay for badly needed mental health and substance abuse services.

In deep-red Utah, Park City Mayor Jack Thomas this fall stood up for DACA and the so-called “Dreamers” it protects from deportation, allowing them to work and study in Utah. He sent out a newsletter urging residents to practice tolerance and supported a pro-DACA city resolution.

“Another reason to get to know your neighbors is to better understand the human toll that reversing some of our most humane and productive immigration policies would take,” Thomas wrote, calling “recent efforts to dismantle DACA … disturbing.”

Disputed resolution

But in Vail, where Mayor Dave Chapin and other town officials have repeatedly expressed support for immigrant, the “Trump Slump” is downplayed as a factor in decreased Mexican tourists. There’s disagreement over just how far local law enforcement should go to cooperate – or not – with federal immigration officials.

Vail town prosecutor Inga Causey, who also has a private practice representing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, helped set up a group called the Community Trust Project to push for an Eagle County resolution clearly spelling out local law enforcement’s role in the ongoing federal immigration crackdown.

She says it’s needed to ease fears because undocumented residents aren’t showing up as witnesses or even reporting crimes because they’re afraid local police will turn them over to ICE.

“There are cases that we have to dismiss because we don’t have witnesses,” Causey said. “The fear is still there. There’s a greater visibility of ICE agents at the courthouses, but that’s not all that’s occurring. I’ve had jury trials scheduled where I have undocumented witnesses that I needed to continue with prosecution of a defendant, and they’re not coming.”

Since January, Causey has been advocating for an Eagle County resolution clearly stating that local police will not enforce federal immigration laws or do more than the bare minimum to inform ICE that undocumented people have been arrested for low-level misdemeanor offenses. And she wants a concerted, community-wide effort to inform people about the resolution.

But Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger doesn’t think such a resolution is necessary – mainly because he feels like it’s already been done. In February, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and other local police agencies posted a statement in both Spanish and English.

“We have seen some instances where people have been fearful, and that’s what we were trying to address in our statement,” Henninger said. “It doesn’t reach the level of a governmental, resolution-making decision, and I’m not sure that’s as critical maybe as Inga and her group feel it is, but I could be totally wrong on that issue.”

Policy supersedes

Hispanics or Latinos made up just under 30 percent of Eagle County’s population of nearly 54,000 in July of 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with foreign-born people making up 19 percent of the population between 2011-15. That’s one of the highest foreign-born populations in the state, according to a recent analysis.
While supportive of immigrants in Eagle County, Henninger says none of the Vail Valley’s towns are sanctuary cities because they’re all tied to the policies of the Eagle County Detention Center in Eagle, which is run by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.

The policy there is to notify federal immigration officials whenever a foreign-born person from any country in the world – not just Mexico or other parts of Latin America – is arrested and detained at the Eagle County jail.

In the wake of persistent reports of increased ICE presence since January and recent busts in Eagle and Garfield counties, Sheriff James Van Beek told that everyone is treated equally by the justice system in Eagle County – a position he reiterated in a recent column in the Vail Daily.

Henninger and Van Beek both cited the long-running Immigrant Advisory Council, launched in conjunction with Catholic Charities, that communicates the policies and practices of local police to Spanish-speaking residents through a variety of techniques, including church meetings and other types of gatherings.

The council works with local nonprofits and groups such as Eagle County Schools, the Salvation Army, Bright Future Foundation, YouthPower365 and Eagle County Victim Services. Causey lauds those groups but says more needs to be done to facilitate cooperation with local police.

“They may reach out to Catholic Charities or the Bright Future Foundation, but even then, trying to get them to contact law enforcement is very difficult, and the longer they wait the more difficult it is to prosecute those crimes – sex assault, domestic violence,” Causey said. “They require kind of an immediate police contact so that the investigation can occur quickly.”

One of the reasons the universal county resolution idea stalled – with actual action items to increase communications – is that local law enforcement wants to retain its right to notify ICE when extremely violent offenders are detained.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in any community who feels like people who are violent criminals should be allowed to stay in this country when they have both the criminal violation and an immigration violation,” Henninger said, “so I think we’re all supportive of getting those people out of the country.”

Fearful of feds?

Causey is fully supportive of notifying federal immigration officials in those instances, but she argues federal pressure may have more to do with the lack of a cohesive, countywide resolution.

“[Federal pressure has] been something that obviously has been on the minds of all law enforcement, and quite frankly that becomes the difficult thing, that they want to do something to help their community – in their minds to make it safer – but, yes, there is fear that funding will be pulled,” Causey said.

Even though Eagle County, working with the sheriff, has already passed a general resolution of support for immigrants, Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan says she would likely back a more specific resolution. She confirmed local law enforcement is nervous about federal reaction.

“I think that the sheriff is afraid to lose federal funds because that’s been made a threat,” Ryan said. “In my view, I just don’t think it’s local law enforcement’s job to enforce federal immigration law, and I would go so far as to say I don’t even believe we should be helping them at all.”

Ryan said there are other steps the county can take to ease fears in the immigrant community.

“One response that we have had as a county is we have a new position that we’re getting ready to hire and it’s a community outreach worker and their purpose is really to have a position solely dedicated to outreach to the Latino community,” Ryan said.

Henninger says comprehensive, federal immigration reform is necessary, and that “until we fix that problem, these are just Band-Aid kinds of things trying to deal with them.” In the meantime, his department will continue to work with the local immigrant population.

“We work very hard in Eagle County, all law enforcement agencies do, to build relationships with our communities — and that’s all the communities,” Henninger said. “A large portion of our county is Hispanic and is here working hard and doing a good job, making our community successful.

“I wouldn’t want anything to derail that, and I think the national rhetoric is clearly making people less comfortable with law enforcement, and that’s one of the primary reasons we as a group decided to put out that statement [in February],” he added.

David O. Williams

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is a freelance writer based in Eagle-Vail, Colo. His work has appeared in more than 50 online and print publications in Colorado and around the nation.