Jose Diaz came to southeast Wyoming for two reasons, he said — to be with his new wife, and to work. Today, he and his wife have two small children and he works in agriculture.
To reach his wife, Diaz undertook a long and dangerous journey, then took a job few others wanted, he said. It’s a common story among the undocumented immigrants WyoFile interviewed — an uprooting taken at great personal risk to advance themselves in an economy that needs them.
Today, immigrant labor is often associated with the hospitality industry — think Jackson hotels and Rock Springs restaurant kitchens. Wyoming’s history with immigrant agricultural labor stretches back far further, however. For nearly a century, farms and ranches have depended on immigrants to do the difficult jobs that no one else wanted e.g. weeding beet fields or tending sheep. Some of the workers came legally through special visa programs, and some, like Diaz who spoke to WyoFile using a pseudonym to protect his identity, came illegally.
A long walk
Diaz came to the U.S. in 2010, from Mexico. His wife preceded him on a visa. To reach Wyoming without one, Diaz said, he paid $1,500 to a guide who brings people illegally across the border — a “coyote.” Diaz’s coyote, a family friend, gave him a deal. The price is often much higher, Diaz said.
The coyote led him across the border, over parts of New Mexico and Arizona, Diaz said. For a week they walked at night through empty borderlands, carrying their food and water. The water ran out 35 miles short of their destination. They drank stagnant water from the bottom of a nearly-dry natural pool. He walked passed the graves of other migrants in the desert and saw backpacks and clothes strewn abandoned across the ground.
From Arizona Diaz paid another fee — $500 this time — for a ride to Denver, where his wife’s cousin met him for the final leg to Wyoming.
Diaz broke the law to come here. Still, he disputes then candidate Trump’s assertions that people crossing the border were not “Mexico’s best” and that they brought drugs and crime to the United States.
“We came here to work, nothing more,” Diaz said. “We didn’t come to take anyone’s jobs or fight with anyone or do drugs. We just came to work.”
Economic drain or driver?
In 2012, undocumented workers made up less than 1.3 percent of Wyoming’s workforce, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.
Undocumented immigrants contributed more than $3.5 million in sales and property taxes to the state that year, according to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a progressive research organization. If undocumented immigrants had been granted legal residence, they would’ve paid another $356,000, the report said.
The most common tax undocumented immigrants avoid paying is a personal income tax, the report said. Wyoming does not currently have such a tax.
Diaz chose not to say what field he specifically worked in. But, he said, “the job we do … the Americans, the people with papers don’t like our job. It’s a job not everyone wants to do.”
That makes Diaz part of a long tradition of immigrant labor boosting Wyoming agriculture by taking hard jobs, according to farm industry observers.
There was a time when many immigrant workers in Wyoming worked in sugar beet fields, but that’s no longer the case, said Scott Zimmerman, government relations staff for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. He lives between Pine Bluffs and Albin, not far from Diaz’s home. Immigrant laborers, many of whom were Mexican, used to hoe the rows of beets to keep them clear of weeds, Zimmerman said, both in that area and in the Wind River, Shoshoni and Big Horn basins.
“That was virtually the only way to get it done was with the immigrant labor,” Zimmerman said, “because no residents in this country were willing to do that, haven’t been since the 1920s, ‘30s.”
New technology ended the need for intensive manual labor in the beet industry in the late 1980s, Zimmerman said. Vegetable producers in Northern Colorado, with their need for hoeing and bagging produce on a short time scale during the harvest, today provide more of a market for more traditional farm immigrant labor — “manual labor out in the elements,” Zimmerman said.
Today, a lot of immigrant agricultural labor in Wyoming is associated with the sheep industry, said Brett Moline, a lobbyist with the Wyoming Farm Bureau. Those workers are vetted and usually their presence is lawful, he said. Many of the larger wool producers bring in herders on H-2A visas. Ranchers can use H-2A visas to bring in immigrant laborers provided they can prove the work is seasonal and that there are insufficient U.S. workers.
Many producers use South American workers, particularly Peruvians, Moline said. “They understand sheep, they work well with them,” he said.
For immigrants without specific skill sets or special visas, like Diaz, who came to Wyoming when he was 19 years old, there are still agricultural jobs to be had. Zimmerman said he believed immigrant labor is used in various agricultural processing facilities and large hog farms. “Again that’s a job that typically the whites don’t want any part of,” he said.
Increased enforcement actions, or rumors of them, affect producers as well as undocumented immigrants, Zimmerman said. If “my picking crew decided not to show up to work because ICE was in the community, it would impact me.”
Besides agriculture, undocumented immigrants work in Wyoming’s hotels and restaurants, jobs which grew in number during oil and gas booms, said Suzan Pritchett, a UW Law professor and director of the International Human Rights Clinic there. Some work in the oil and gas industry itself, she said.
Pritchett sees several common themes behind attitudes opposed to immigrants in Wyoming. One is a mistaken assumption that there aren’t many undocumented immigrants in the state, and another is that undocumented immigrants are freeloaders on the system. “There’s a lot of misperception about what the United States gives somebody who’s here without documentation,” she said.
Undocumented immigrants, many of whom acquire jobs using false identities, still have taxes taken out of paychecks. “Even people who are working without valid social security numbers are paying into the social security system,” Pritchett said. If they never attain legal residency, immigrants will never attain the benefits of social security. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants tend not to qualify for a lot of services, like health insurance, Pritchett said.
Martín and Rosie Aguilar, two undocumented immigrants who spoke with WyoFile under a pseudonym, said they do not have health insurance. When their oldest son suffered an injury playing sports, they took him to a health care clinic and paid cash, they said. Another son was unable to pursue student loans for college because he is undocumented.
Undocumented immigrants are not without costs, however, Pritchett said. “Differing minds can agree on that, and certainly there’s big questions around emergency room services and what does it cost to provide public education in our schools,” she said. To create positive immigration reform, Pritchett said, citizens in the United States will have to decide whether to confront such examples of “the nuance” of the situation today.
Immigrant workers are for the most part respected in the town of Albin, where Diaz lives. “You come here to work and people treat you well,” he said.
But Diaz also said that around the country a hard work ethic is beginning to matter less than it used to, in terms of earning Mexican immigrants’ fair treatment. “There’s more racism now,” Diaz said. “[Caucasians] don’t look at you the same.” Trump labeled Mexicans as criminals, he said, and that has given license to those who already carried sentiments against immigrants.
Diaz and others point to recent posts on social media and the ad site Craigslist telling people to turn in undocumented immigrants. The Aguilars high school aged son said he’s seen more taunts at school, including shouts of “build that wall.”
For at least some in Wyoming’s agricultural industry rising anti-immigrant sentiment is a concern. “I hope most people in agriculture, and in Wyoming can rise above that,” Zimmerman said.