TOPICS > Politics

Immigration Shapes Las Vegas’ Political, Economic Growth

November 12, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, campaign 2008, and the introduction of a new feature called “The Big Picture.” The idea is to spend some time with people in different parts of the country and find out what’s really on their minds this election year. Our goal is to spark a national dialogue about the issues that matter to people, both on-camera and online. For starters, Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez have traveled to Las Vegas.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, Nevada is holding its presidential caucuses on January the 19th, which is about two weeks after Iowa. So the folks out here in the west could have a significant role to play in winnowing down the candidates in both political parties.

The polls here show that the war in Iraq is a main concern. And so on this day when they’re observing Veterans Day, we came to a place where they’re recognizing wounded warriors from that war and others. It is the Marine Corps Leatherneck Club.

BILL STOJACK, U.S. Navy (Ret.): The majority of conversation I hear is obviously from the circle of people I’m associated with, and it’s we don’t hear the good news. And that’s very disturbing to people, because they know firsthand that there are good things going on.

MARK CHRISTIANSON, U.S. Army (Ret.): This isn’t about the current president. It’s not about the future president. It’s about the country. We as a country need to stand as the leader of freedom, the beacon of hope in the world to confront this terror.

A reputation for entertainment

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of course, there are other issues on the minds of these Nevadans, as well, issues that spring from who they are and where they live. My colleague, Ray Suarez, explains.

RAY SUAREZ: Some 38 million people come to Las Vegas every year to be entertained, to gamble, to be wined and dined, to just let loose.

ADVERTISING ACTOR: I'm a big game hunter.



RAY SUAREZ: Its famous ad campaign encourages the notion that this is the city where it's OK to misbehave, because "what happens here, stays here." It's a city unlike any other, yet, when the gamblers head home, the people who live and work here face the same everyday challenges people all across America do, social and economic concerns, how to live, and at what cost.

Boom in construction industry

RAY SUAREZ: In a century, Las Vegas has moved from being a speck in the midst of a vast desert to a metropolitan area of some two million people. After the Second World War, the hotels brought tourists, the tourists brought more hotels, and the hotels, in turn, brought dealers, waiters and waitresses, construction workers. They all need fresh drinking water, electricity, doctors and teachers. It's a story that's been told many places in America, but rarely has it all happened so fast.

The speed increases the urgency for answers. Who's going to teach the kids? Where's that electricity going to come from? Where's the water going to come from? And where's everybody going to live?

The sounds of construction can be heard everywhere, from the famous strip, where MGM's $8 billion "City Center" is being built, to the farthest reaches of the suburbs, where new houses go up faster than the post office can service them. In fact, construction is the third-largest industry in Nevada, after tourism and mining.

Steve Hill owns a concrete construction company.

STEVE HILL, Silver State Materials Corp.: The construction industry in Las Vegas employs about two-and-a-half times the number of people in the industry as the national average. We are about 12 percent of the workforce. We pay about 15 percent of the taxes to the state. So the growth that has been Las Vegas is an industry in and of itself.

New residents flock to city

RAY SUAREZ: And as they build it, people do come.

RED WALLIN, Realtor: Well, we still have 5,000 or so a month moving in.

RAY SUAREZ: Red Wallin has been selling homes in Las Vegas for 26 years. She says even the recent dip in the housing market hasn't stopped people from flocking here.

RED WALLIN: The growth and the change here is just phenomenal.

RAY SUAREZ: And how does it change what you do?

RED WALLIN: I think, because of the international appeal that we have, with people coming to us from all over the world, we have to learn new techniques, new customs. We need to learn to make people comfortable here with us, because that's what we're all about.

CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER: Are you registered to vote?

RAY SUAREZ: Las Vegas truly is a city of immigrants. Nearly a thousand new citizens from all over the world are sworn in at the federal courthouse every month.

Afterwards, many eagerly sign up to exercise their new right to vote.

Of course, thousands have also come illegally. By some estimates, as many as 200,000, mostly Hispanic and Asian. They come for the jobs.

So if you get here tomorrow morning, how long until you're working?

XAVIER RIVAS, Businessman: It takes about a week, especially in landscaping, construction.

The impact of immigration

RAY SUAREZ: Xavier Rivas is a local businessman who became a U.S. citizen seven years ago. He's troubled by those here illegally, but he understands why they come.

XAVIER RIVAS: The problem with immigration starts south of the border, Mexico all the way through Argentina, where the governments have not been able to create jobs. And when you don't have a job, you can't take food to your table. What you do is look north and look to the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: But the fact is, the gambling, hospitality, and construction industries deeply depend on the undocumented workforce to keep pace with job expansion. So while illegal immigration is a front-and-center issue in most other parts of the country, it's a fact of life here in Las Vegas that people would rather not talk about.

The city has grown 35 percent since 2000. That breakneck growth has made Nevada -- land of deserts, mountains, prospectors and cactus -- one of the most urban states in the country and far different from the other early primary and caucus states.