National immigration reform isn't just a way "out of the shadows" for some 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S., but would bring economic benefits and help in the fight against crime, according to a panel of business, government and law-enforcement leaders who convened Monday morning in Aspen.

The half-day forum at the St. Regis Resort came as Congress takes up a bipartisan reform measure brought forward by the so-called "Gang of Eight" in the U.S. Senate, a group that includes U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado. The 800-plus-page bill could see debate on the Senate floor as soon as next month, and the estimated 150 attendees at Monday's forum were urged to reach out to their congressional representatives to voice their views, whatever they might be.

Among forum participants, the view was clearly one of support for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. Among the audience were a few detractors, though, and moderator Steve Wickes acknowledged the assemblage of experts could turn the forum into a pep rally for reform. He proceeded to ask Aspen hotelier Warren Klug one of the tougher questions of the morning: Why can't Roaring Fork Valley employers fill local jobs with U.S. citizens?
Jobs in the hospitality industry, housekeeping for example, are hard work, Klug responded.

"They are hard jobs that, frankly, don't attract as many legal Caucasians as we would like to think," he said. "We don't have the applicants - if we did, we'd be hiring them."

Klug is general manager of the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors member who led the charge in organizing the forum. The event featured remarks from Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum and Mark Doms, undersecretary for economic affairs with the U.S. Department of Commerce, as well as panel discussions that involved a spokesperson from Bennet's office; John Suthers, Colorado state attorney general; Denver immigration attorney Ann Allott; former Utah State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and others. The ACRA and Aspen Institute presented the forum along with the National Immigration Forum.

The bill, in broad terms, requires strengthened border patrol as a first step; full implementation of an Internet-based database, E-Verify, that allows employers to check the status of prospective workers and uses biometric data to tie individuals to their identification documents; an expanded visa system for high-tech workers and a 10-year path to legal status for undocumented workers, said Sarah Kendall Hughes, deputy chief of staff with Bennet's office.

To become legal, undocumented workers would apply and qualify as a registered provisional immigrant, pay a $2,000 penalty and prove they're working or in school for 10 years before they could become legal, resident workers. They would also have to file tax returns, pay taxes and learn English, Hughes said. Becoming a U.S. citizen would require another process.

"Many would argue this is not amnesty. It's a rigorous and tough path to citizenship," she said.

Doms, who oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, rejected the contention that undocumented workers are undermining the economy. A 40-year period of huge growth in foreign-born workers in the States, starting in 1970, also was marked by substantial growth in jobs, personal income and productivity, he said, offering a series of charts and graphs to make his point. Foreign-born workers are a significant source of company startups - they were responsible for about 25 percent of the companies that launched initial public stock offerings over the past decade - and they will be key to filling jobs as more and more older workers retire, he said.

Between now and 2060, the number of people over age 65 will more than double - from 43 million to more than 90 million, according to Doms.

"We'll need a workforce that helps support our aging population," he said.

Panelists at Monday's forum described the challenges undocumented workers face, from harassment to paying Social Security benefits they can never collect because they don't have a legitimate Social Security number. Employers who hire undocumented workers drive down wages for everyone, some said.

Better border control and documentation of workers will help law enforcement, according to Suthers, calling for a system that allows legitimate workers into the country and weeds out the criminals.

"I've become absolutely convinced ... that comprehensive immigration reform will seriously aid the law-enforcement task," he said.

Several audience members earned applause, however, for suggesting the U.S. is capable of filling high-tech jobs without foreign-born help and that low wages are why citizens aren't taking jobs held by undocumented workers.

"No one in this room pays minimum wage - I can assure you of that," Klug countered.

Dave Johnson of Carbondale asked about the fate of millions of unemployed legal workers and said job applicants in the mid- and lower valley are often asked if they speak Spanish.

"You know what? That's wrong," he said.

Attorney Allott responded by telling the crowd she watched a roomful of job applicants mostly clear out when they were told they'd be required to take a drug test on the spot.

The time appears ripe to pass significant reform legislation, Noorani said, and several panelists suggested doing nothing means maintaining the status quo - an unacceptable result in their view.

Hughes encouraged attendees to consider the bill as a whole.

"Keep in mind you're going to like a lot of it. You're going to squawk or grumble at some of it," she said.