May 21, 2011 | Gazette | Original Article

Latinos are fastest-growing population in county, census says

Gina Crespo left Chihuahua, Mexico five years ago looking for a better life and ended up in Colorado Springs.

“I already had a brother working here, so I came here because there were a lot of jobs,” she said, while shopping Thursday at the local Mexican-focused supermarket Rancho Liborio. She said she immigrated legally.

Now married with a one-year-old son and working as a maid, Crespo, 24,  is a typical face of the fastest growing sector of El Paso County’s population.

According to the latest batch of information from the 2010 Census, the number of Mexicans in the county — both legal and illegal — doubled in the last decade.

The local Latino population is now estimated to be 93,665, or 15.1 percent of the county’s population. The census breaks the Latino category into Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and “other.” People who identified themselves as Mexican number 60,706 or 65.5 percent and are the fastest-growing group.

The increase echoes growth in the Latino population statewide, which grew 41.2 percent from 2000 to 2010. But the boom was particularly pronounced in the Pikes Peak region.

In El Paso County, the Latino population surged 60.4 percent, echoing almost identical gains in the 1990s. In Teller County, it increased more than 80 percent, though with only 5.5 percent of the total population Latino, Teller remains the 10th most caucasian of Colorado’s 64 counties.

While towns from Monument to Fountain all saw increases in Latinos, most immigrants are centered in lower-income neighborhoods of southern and eastern Colorado Springs, the census shows. For example, fewer than one in 14 people in Palmer Lake is Latino, while in Stratmoor Valley, it’s one in four.

The census does not track how many immigrants in El Paso County are in the United States illegally. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and Colorado Springs Police Department were unable to provide estimates. But the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that just over half of Mexican-born immigrants are in the United States illegally, which means El Paso County could be home to more than 30,000 illegal Mexican immigrants.

The vast majority of recent Mexican immigrants build houses, clean rooms, and work in other low-level jobs, said Corey Almond, vice president of Family Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs, which offers free English classes.

“Most of them work very hard, and work very long hours, many of them at multiple low paying jobs,” said Almond. “They tend to have very traditional values.”

Though the number of Mexican residents has climbed steadily, the population is anything but stable, Almond said, because immigrants often regularly go back and forth to Mexico, with some never returning to the United States.

The dramatic increase in Mexicans living in Colorado Springs can be seen on the city’s commercial boulevards, where previously unknown Mexican carnicerias, tiendas and panaderias now dot the urban landscape.

“Some places you look around and wonder what country you are in,” Kelly Fleury, a mother of two from upstate New York, said with a good-natured chuckle while shopping in the meat section of the 65,000-square foot Rancho Liborio market, which opened in 2008. “I see them at the library, at the WIC (foodstamps) office, sometimes I feel like a minority.”

Fleury works at a call center, selling cell phone contracts. She says the company increasingly targets Latinos because “They all work and pay their bills.” Because of that, she said, bilingual employees are increasingly in demand.

The growth in Latinos in the region has fueled an often rancorous debate over the effectiveness of federal boarder patrol and steps local lawmakers can take to limit immigration.

“People just don’t know what kind of negative impact (illegal immigrants) can have,” said former local state senator Dave Schultheis. “They use our welfare system, use our schools, and take jobs away from Americans.”

Schultheis estimates he dedicated more than 60  percent of his time to immigration reform and sponsored an estimate 20 bills that, he said, “have all been killed by the Democrats.”

The increase in Latinos, he said, “Shows the government is not enforcing immigration laws.”

This spring, another El Paso County legislator, State Sen. Kent Lambert, introduced four bills aimed at policing immigrants, including an ‘Arizona style’ bill that would have allowed law enforcement officials to arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally. None passed.

Studies by the federal government and various think tanks suggest the economic impact of illegal immigrants is hard to measure because while they do use social services such as schools and hospitals, they also pay taxes and help keep prices for goods and services lower.

Crespo’s brother worked in construction but lost his job in 2009 and went back to their home town.

“He could not find work,” she said.

But like many others, Crespo decided to stay.

“I like it here,” she said. “This is my home.”