Immigrants are Helping Fuel Local Economy

By on June 20, 2018

A new report quantifies their contributions and outlines many of the challenges they increasingly confront

A chart from the report “Economic Contributions of Immigrants to Teton County” displays industries where immigrants comprise significant chunks of the workforce.


JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s no secret immigrants comprise a large portion of the local workforce. Now there is data on the critical role they play in supporting Teton County’s economy. A report by law professor Noah Novogrodsky of the University of Wyoming and the national nonprofit New American Economy (NAE) quantifies the local economic contributions of immigrants.

Adding Evidence to Intuition

In a state waving goodbye to its young workforce, population growth is an increasingly hot topic. The report’s data emphasizes the role of immigrants in adding to Teton County’s population, particularly among working-age people. From 2010 to 2015, roughly 28 percent of the total population growth in Teton County came from immigration. Immigrants contributed nearly $350 million to Teton County’s total industry output and spent about $90 million of disposable income locally.

To diversify the economy statewide and entice Wyoming’s young people to stay, Gov. Matt Mead recently launched the ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversification Options for Wyoming) campaign. Economic diversification is a huge issue for Wyoming, as there is a lack of career options for college-educated young people. Mining is the state’s largest industry, and many college grads see moving elsewhere as their only option. ENDOW, then, will invest heavily in technology to create new jobs.

But this is a 20-year initiative and Jackson Rep. Mike Gierau–D, said by supporting the working immigrant population, the state could find a fast solution. “There might be a lot of that core employment need here under our very noses, in our own communities,” he said.

In 2014, nearly half the U.S.-born population was working age (16-64), compared to almost three quarters of the foreign-born population. The ratio is similar in Teton County: more than 60 percent of the U.S.-born population is working age. Meanwhile, almost 90 percent of the foreign-born population is of working age and that percentage is steadily increasing.

The report focuses on Latino immigrants, who comprised almost three quarters of the county’s immigrant population in 2015, but it also looks at J-1 student visa holders. The J-1 visa, which allows foreign students to work and study in the U.S., brings essential service workers to Teton County who support the tourist industry in the shoulder seasons, when Jackson’s U.S.-born student population leaves work to return to school.

“Immigrants are integral to a successful, thriving economy, and if you look deeply at the report it’s clear that certain industries would collapse in Wyoming without immigrant labor,” Novogrodsky said. Indeed, immigrant workers are present in every key industry in Jackson. Immigrants comprise 11.8 percent of agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting jobs, and 11 percent of tourism, hospitality and recreation jobs.

One22 director Sharel Love says the contributions of immigrants is something that has been obvious to much of the community, but “it’s not enough just to tell stories,” she said. “We really do need the social science to back us up in order to get anywhere. Now we have evidence and research to support those kinds of intuitions that we’ve known for generations.”

Love said One22 is already applying the study’s data to make changes and additions to the services they provide. The report will help secure funding, and also connect organizations that are doing similar work near and far, which Love hopes will pave the way for stronger networks of support.

But despite what Teton County’s immigrants contribute, the scales of reciprocity are far from balanced.

Challenges and Solutions

The study points to a variety of challenges, like lack of access to “low-cost legal assistance with immigration law matters, drivers’ licenses or municipal identification cards, Spanish-language services, affordable housing, and educational support.”

Jackson is home to many immigrants who moved here when they were infants, and although they feel at home, they have experienced a spectrum of challenges. Vanessa, 23, moved to Jackson from Tlaxcala, Mexico, with her family when she was two years old. She has been working since she was 13, and had to use papers with that name in order to work at such a young age. She has gone by Vanessa ever since.

Vanessa is a DACA recipient and has a Mexican Consulate ID, which allows her to cash checks from work and provide identification. She cannot obtain a Wyoming driver’s license, a significant source of stress. “You could be pulled over and asked if you have a license,” she said. “Also, when immigration comes into town, you never know if they will be around and just stop you.” Vanessa also laments that her immigration status keeps her from getting a better job.

More than anything, she wants to become a legal U.S. citizen. “It has been about 22 years that I have lived here and from the time I could try to apply for citizenship to now, there has been no way of getting there and it’s basically just being stuck in the same spot.” DACA has been of some help to her, but she has would like to establish residency and citizenship because she has no plans to leave.

Many local immigrants, not just DACA recipients, are in need of legal counsel for citizenship status. Trefonas Law’s Rosie Read, Jackson’s sole full-time immigration lawyer, said the dearth of “reliable, accessible advice” for local immigrants is “the most important need for that community that should be addressed.”

Until recently, Elisabeth Trefonas—founder of Trefonas Law—also worked as a full-time immigration lawyer in Jackson. Trefonas is still an important pillar of legal counsel in the immigrant community, but she has since become the only full-time public defender in Teton and Sublette counties, and now maintains a roster of just 30 immigration cases in Jackson. That leaves Read. “One and a half attorneys for an immigrant population of this size is just not enough,” Read said.

Read cautioned there are many people all over the country who take advantage of immigrants’ desperation to find legal counsel.

In Latin American countries, the word notario, Spanish for notary, refers to officials with similar expertise as attorneys, Read said. This is why many notaries in the U.S., who do not have the power of an attorney, often take advantage of some immigrants’ interpretation of the word to provide immigration counsel for a fee.

Immigrants often resort to these do-it-yourself solutions because their English skills are limited. One22’s Language Access Center provides translation services for Spanish speakers in medical settings, and plans on expanding services into other critical areas including legal counsel, education, health and wellness, and some limited availability for commercial enterprise, Love said.

Immigrants Helping Immigrants

The fight for greater access to legal counsel and Spanish translation services is not new for local immigrants. Jorge Moreno, 36, is a local activist, translator, and former case worker for One22, and has been working to support immigrants in Jackson for years. Moreno moved to Jackson from Mexico City in 1996, and since he got into local activism in 2013 he has worked with a number of local nonprofits to grant immigrants greater access to translation services, legal counsel and affordable housing.

He is also a certified translator, and has recently become an official liaison between different construction companies, all of which are Latino-run, and their clients around town. Moreno uses his bilingual abilities, as well as his relationships with the Latino community, to build trust and foster connections between Spanish-speakers and “Anglos,” in the hopes that Latino business owners and contractors will eventually be able to run their businesses and meet new clients on their own.

Moreno sees his work with local construction companies as behind-the-scenes, and hopes that by supporting these small businesses now, they will eventually be able to stand on their own. “I want them to be so confident that they will not need me. They would be a strong enough company that would not really need my services,” he said, even though their independence would mean a pay cut for him.

Sacrifice is a huge part of Moreno’s activism. He has donated hundreds of hours of volunteer time to organizations like the Latino Resource Center, Family Services, and the Teton County Access to Justice Center.

Moreno’s efforts have made differences in the lives of local immigrants, but it is also hard for him to continue donating much of his time to volunteer work and activism. “Jackson is where I want my kids to grow up,” Moreno said. “Sadly, it’s something that I see that is less and less possible due to the high cost of living.”

Fighting for the Future

The study’s economic approach could present a renewed argument for increased governmental support for immigrants in Wyoming. This is the first time immigration in Teton County has been examined so closely, and the results could have implications statewide.

Gierau sees the report as an opportunity to push harder, on both sides of the aisle, for support for Wyoming’s immigrants. They could be a solution to Wyoming’s economic issues rather than a moral argument, he said.

For people like Marcos Hernandez, who co-owns Streetfood at the Stagecoach in Wilson, and now Butter—a new restaurant in Victor, Idaho—with his wife, Amelia Hatchard, he wants people to understand that immigrants are tenacious and hard-working, that it doesn’t necessarily get easier when they come to the U.S.

Hernandez immigrated to Jackson from Leon, Mexico, in 2005 and although he has been here more than a decade, he is constantly aware that he is in a different country, speaking a language other than his own.

“I’m in somebody else’s house,” he said. “That’s how I feel. So everything that I do is a challenge for me. If it weren’t for my wife, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

With Hatchard’s help, Hernandez launched their businesses, but his reliance on his wife is never far from his mind. Hernandez makes an exhausting effort to conduct his businesses in English, a language with which he is not completely comfortable. Unlike Vanessa, he moved here as an adult and grappled with a new language and culture, as well as a dependence on his wife for citizenship, which made him feel like he needed to do more to be taken seriously.

“I don’t have to do 100 percent, I have to do 150 percent,” he said.

About Rachel Attias

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