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A Denver garden center saw backlash after offering jobs to migrants with work permits


The thousands of migrants who are being sent from the southern U.S. border to cities like New York, Chicago and Denver, they cost a lot to feed and shelter. Those cities get stuck with the bill because most of the migrants cannot legally work and support themselves. Colorado Public Radio's Andrew Kenney has the story of one business that tried to help.

ANDREW KENNEY, BYLINE: In the last two years, about 40,000 new immigrants have come through Denver, straining city services to the point that Mayor Mike Johnston recently announced $5 million in budget cuts, and he expects he may have to cut more.


MIKE JOHNSTON: This is a plan for shared sacrifice. This is what good people do in hard situations.

KENNEY: But local leaders have also described immigration as a way to solve one of the state's other big issues. Here's Governor Jared Polis.


JARED POLIS: We have a workforce shortage. We have two job openings for every applicant, every unemployed person. So we need them.

KENNEY: Julie Echter's family has lived in the Denver area for generations. She's found it difficult to look away from the struggles of the new arrivals.

JULIE ECHTER: I was watching people go into these shelters and then move out onto the streets. And I was watching women and kids. And it was just really hard for me.

KENNEY: And last month, she realized she could do something about it because her grandpa co-founded a business called Echter's Nursery and Garden Center, where she's now a vice president. They're just beginning their growing season, greenhouses stocked with thousands of tiny annuals.

ECHTER: We go from about 30 year-round employees to over a hundred in our peak season. So we have to hire a lot of people in a short amount of time and train them.

KENNEY: Making those hires has been really hard in the last few years. And she could see that migrants living in Denver's shelters need jobs, so why not hire them?

ECHTER: We, all of a sudden, have all these people in Denver that really want to work, and there just seemed like it was a very obvious connection.

KENNEY: Echter tapped into a sprawling Facebook network that sprung up to support new immigrants in Denver, and started searching for people legally eligible to work. This morning, her first new immigrant hires had just arrived - Jose Gregorio Campos and Nicky Salazar. Salazar says they're relieved to finally have steady work.

NICKY SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KENNEY: Campos and Salazar fled Venezuela because of repressive politics and a disastrous economy.

SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KENNEY: With their new full-time jobs, they can pay rent for the place they're living with their 11-year-old son. Echter at the Garden Center Figured it would be a win-win. It's totally legal for Campos and Salazar to work in the U.S., but hiring them came with something she didn't expect - political blowback.

ECHTER: It's hard to get bad reviews like that.

KENNEY: She's reading over some of a few hundred angry messages that have poured in on social media, over email, on review pages, after a local news story about the new hires. There's one woman who said...

ECHTER: She has lots of trees in her yard from Echter's, and she's never going to shop here again.

KENNEY: A lot of them accused her of hosting illegal immigrants, which is not true, or they said she was taking jobs from Americans.

CHLOE EAST: It's a very pervasive narrative politically.

KENNEY: Chloe East is a professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver. She says, despite that perception, immigration can actually help American job-seekers.

EAST: Not only does it help kind of the aggregate economy, how we want to measure that in terms of GDP or whatever, but also it helps create new jobs for U.S.-born workers. And I think that's really the most important kind of maybe surprising finding from the research.

KENNEY: East argues that when immigrants take less-desirable jobs - washing dishes or maybe watering plants - businesses can expand and hire more Americans to the jobs they do want.

EAST: Again, this is not just my own research, but lots of research that we now have.

KENNEY: Julie Echter does not want to get pulled into the national political debate over immigration, but she's not quitting either.

ECHTER: I think it's important to encourage other businesses to consider this as an option because I guess that the issue isn't going away. We have to figure out a way to solve it.

KENNEY: She plans to hire three more recent immigrants herself. But there's only so much businesses can do. There are an estimated 5,500 migrants around Denver who can get jobs legally, like Campos and Salazar, but many thousands more are having to wait six months or longer for work authorization - if they can get it at all. That's something only the federal government can change. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Kenney in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrew Kenney