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Will Colorado’s ski country get pinched by Trump’s immigration policies?

Author: Dan Njegomir - September 21, 2017 - Updated: September 21, 2017

Who’ll run the lifts if the Trump administration cuts back on ski resorts’ foreign labor? (iStock image / Kisa_Markiza)

For all the high-profile attempts by the Trump administration to crack down on immigration — its travel ban; its saber-rattling at sanctuary cities; its repeal of DACA — a far more obscure White House initiative on immigration could turn out to have the most far-reaching impact on Colorado.

The headline-grabbers haven’t gotten very far. Only a scaled-back version of the travel ban went into effect, in June, and it’s under review by the courts with a ruling possible next month. Meanwhile, Congress — urged on by the same president who nixed the Obama era’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — appears willing to enact its own protections against deportation for foreign-born, U.S. raised illegal immigrants.

Yet, a little-reported, possible policy shift regarding another type of immigration has the ski industry worried. Same goes for the service industry in surrounding ski towns. That’s the upshot of a report this week in ski-beat magazine Powder.

The industry for years has relied on H-2B and, more recently, J-1 visas to fill perennial labor shortages using temporary workers from abroad. Regulations were tightened on H-2B visas in recent years, and now, says Powder:

President Trump is allegedly eyeing an executive order that could overhaul or eliminate the J-1 visa, among other cultural exchange programs, in an attempt to promote hiring more Americans to fill these seasonal jobs, according to a story published in the Wall Street Journal in late August.

Powder quotes the general manager of Vermont’s Killington Resort saying the visas “are critical to our ability to operate the resort.” The author takes a look at Colorado, too:

At Crested Butte, Colorado, around 10 percent of the winter staff are visitors with J-1 visas. Which means if J-1s are limited, it will have an impact on the resort’s ability to fill positions on the mountain. “The J-1 program offers a cultural exchange component to supplement our local and U.S. staff,” says Zach Pickett, communications coordinator for Crested Butte Mountain Resort. “We do support the program and continuation of the program. We see it as a win-win for the resort and the students, who are primarily visiting from South America.”

It remains unclear whether ski resorts are among the intended targets of the possible J-1 cutback — or would just be collateral damage. You have to wonder if the administration believes there are enough Americans willing to replace the foreign visa holders running lifts, waiting tables and checking in guests at ski resorts — or if no one in the executive branch gave places like Colorado’s high country much thought in the first place.

In an ironic note — perhaps intended by the author? — the Powder story opens with an interview of a young, J-1 visa-holding employee at a restaurant and inn in California, near the ski resorts ringing Lake Tahoe. He’s a ski instructor in his native Slovenia, a popular European ski destination — and homeland of First Lady Melania Trump.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is a blogger and opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.