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Accident highlights Latino influx into the state's mining industry

Workers take risk to secure a job

HUNTINGTON, Utah -- The Utah mining accident has illustrated how increasing numbers of Hispanic immigrants are working the mines in this heavily white, mostly Mormon state.

Three of the six men trapped in Monday's cave-in are from Mexico, according to the Mexican consulate.

"People come here because they know that there's enough work to go around," said Salvador Lazalde, a local Hispanic leader whose cousins work in a nearby open-pit copper mine and who worries that one of the trapped miners is from his hometown, a village in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

"If the pay is good, people say the risk is worth it," Lazalde said. "They know that starting the job."

As the global coal market has heated up, some mining companies across the West have filled a profusion of new jobs in recent years with immigrants from Mexico.

A relative of Manuel Sanchez, one of the trapped miners, said yesterday that relatives had not been given enough information about the rescue efforts, and that three Spanish-speaking families were not provided an interpreter in the first three days of the crisis.

The influx of Hispanics is part of a dynamic that has been going on in Utah since pioneer days.

Chinese, Greek, and Mexican miners first flocked to Utah and other Western states such as Montana and Wyoming in the 1880s, lured by work in the coalfields. They settled in mining centers like Emery County, a region of towering red and brown rock formations that is home to many of the workers in the collapsed mine.

A new wave of immigrants, many of them believed to be illegal, came to Utah when the coal industry started booming again.

"A lot of these coal miners are trained and knowledgeable miners," said Ricardo Silva of the Utah Coalition for La Raza and Jobs with Justice. "They need a job, and they'll do anything for it, including working in these really dangerous conditions."

The number of Hispanics in Utah grew from about 200,000 in 2000 to about 230,000 in 2005, 11 percent of the state's population, according to Census figures.

University of Utah demographer Pam Perlich said that in 2000, Hispanics accounted for about 7 percent of Utah's mining-industry work force of 8,150.

By June of this year, about 11,000 people were working in Utah's mining industry, according to the state Department of Workforce Services.