In Aspen, Privileged Class Pits Immigrant Workers Against Environment

Kari Lydersen

The Slums of Aspen explores immigrant workers' role in the luxury ski resort economy.

Aspen, Colorado is famous for being green“ — as in dollar bills, and the environment. Last week the Aspen Chamber of Commerce withdrew from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because the national group doesn’t support strong action to combat climate change. Aspen is home to The Aspen Institute, which promotes environmental innovation and a shift to a clean energy economy. And in Aspen you can find no shortage of lectures and films about protecting the environment, and green” consumer goods from fancy organic food to fair trade luxury home furnishings.

But as detailed in a recent book by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, Aspen turns its obsession with sustainability in a dark direction when it comes to the immigrant workers that keep its upscale tourist and second-home economy running. The authors argue that under the guise of environmentalism, the town and its surrounding communities have instituted official and de facto policies that make it nearly impossible for immigrants to live near their jobs, and otherwise treat them unfairly and make their lives extremely difficult.

The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants Versus the Environment in America’s Eden argues that attitudes and actions in Aspen and the surrounding Roaring Fork Valley are indicative of a widespread and long-standing trend wherein environmental and nativist movements share a great deal of common ground, far more than most progressives and liberals would like to believe.” By nativist” they mean xenophobic and racist groups who often believe in strict population control and immigration control, especially for certain groups of people. I think the authors’ larger thesis is an over-generalization of a complicated topic (which I explored for Earth Island Journal in 2009), and it is important to remember that in Aspen as in any community, the loudest voices and the policies passed don’t represent the views of all residents.

But regarding Aspen specifically, the authors do make a convincing and highly disturbing case about how some of the nation’s most prominent promoters of sustainability depend on the labor of immigrants to enjoy privileged lives amidst a lovely environment; then invoke environmental concern to make sure those same immigrants are not also able to live amongst them, while also calling for federal action to severely limit immigration.

In 1999 and 2000, Aspen City Council and then the government of Pitkin County, which encompasses the town, passed resolutions calling on the U.S. government to stabilize population” and strictly limit immigration. The Aspen resolution included language demanding equitable wages in the U.S. and community and environmental protections in free trade agreements — commendable measures that theoretically would reduce immigration by helping people survive in their home countries and by reducing the motivation for employers to hire immigrants (surely many undocumented) who will do often seasonal work for low wages.

But ironically the resolution was passed by a town that is highly dependent on these very low-wage immigrant workers, who commute up to 100 miles or more – burning fossil fuels – because they are not paid enough to live in or near Aspen, and Aspen’s strict planning policies essentially prevent the development of affordable housing or businesses and social services for a working class population.

The focus on curbing population and immigration to protect the environment is especially ironic and hypocritical in Aspen, where residents’ and most visitors’ level of resource consumption – given their wealth, home size and frequency of travel – is vastly greater than that of low-wage immigrants. Even with the greenest consumer habits and the buying of (often dubious) carbon offsets to mitigate their jet travel, it seems obvious the net environmental impact of a wealthy Aspen resident dwarfs that of an immigrant family barely scraping by.

Aspen is dedicated to multiculturalism and welcomes top artists, performers, thinkers, skiers, chefs and the like from around the world. Its residents are generally very socially liberal, and unlike in some U.S. communities with anti-immigrant dynamics, there doesn’t appear to be much explicit racism afoot in Aspen. But the authors make clear that while wealthy, powerful Aspen residents court famous and successful visitors from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, they do not want to mingle with the migrants from largely uneducated, impoverished backgrounds who cook their food, clean their homes and hotels and build and repair their houses and resorts.

The authors describe how Aspen’s growth management plan” and other planning decisions from the mid-1990s on served to essentially block any new development of even semi-affordable housing or other institutions that would serve working class workers. They invoke similar planning efforts, meant to preserve open space and limit density, in Boulder, Colorado and Petaluma, Calif. as likewise examples of white environmental privilege in action.”

The environmental justice movement, focused largely on toxic contamination being concentrated in poor, minority” and immigrant neighborhoods, has also expanded to include the idea that poor people of color disproportionately lack access to open space and contact with nature.

This view posits that like a coal plant or smelter in an urban immigrant neighborhood, the fact that few immigrants are able to live in an environmentally attractive place like Aspen or Boulder is in itself an environmental injustice. Living in Boulder for the past year I have indeed noticed that there are few immigrants living in town or enjoying the countless hiking and biking trails…and the dissonance would be much more striking in Aspen since as a primarily tourist economy, it is much more reliant on immigrant labor.

The Slums of Aspen details the controversy over a proposed immigration detention facility in the town of Glenwood Springs 40 miles east of Aspen, a relatively more affordable area where many immigrant workers live. (In Glenwood Springs the median home value is a still pricey $400,000, compared to $4.3 million in Aspen.)

The debate over the detention center highlighted the fact that many ski resorts employ large numbers of young European, Australian and New Zealand immigrants who come on work visas but frequently overstay them – becoming undocumented” like their Latino counterparts. Yet they draw little scrutiny or antipathy from native residents or government officials, and resorts often highlight their internationalism by listing European and Australian/​ Kiwi employees’ home country on their name tags.

The mobilization against the detention center showed that Latino immigrants in the valley are indeed organized and potentially powerful and that the business community when pressed does recognize their reliance upon immigrant workers. The Denver Post editorialized:

Ski resorts, agricultural areas, commercial kitchens and other businesses desperately need hard-working employees, and not enough U.S. citizens are willing to take on these low-paying jobs. When federal agents and local cops swooped through [the resort town of] Jackson, Wyoming in late 1996, they ousted 153 immigrants – marking numbers on their arms with felt-tip pens as if they were cattle and herding some into a horse trailer to haul them to jail.

The daily uncertainty of life for Latino immigrants in Colorado’s resort areas – in contrast to the experience of European immigrants – was illustrated last summer, when two fathers were arrested by immigration agents at the annual Strawberry Days festival in Glenwood Springs while watching their children in the Bouncy Castle. The Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition reported:

The Strawberry Days Festival in Glenwood Springs is usually remembered as a treasured summer family event. This year, some children will also remember it as the day their family was ripped apart by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ultimately Park and Pellow conclude that examples from Aspen aside, the environmental movement is not inherently anti-immigrant and in fact there is much opportunity for addressing environmental, social and economic issues in tandem. The authors quote Penn Loh, former executive director of the Boston environmental justice group Alternatives for Community and Environment:

Reducing immigration will not solve environmental problems, but will militarize borders, criminalize migrants and increase the divide between haves and have-nots. A true ecological approach, one that sees everything as connected to everything else, broadens environmental concerns to include human rights, health and livelihood issues.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue