Emily Coombs gives a young skier some encouragement before heading down the hill. Coombs hopes introducing children to skiing at a young age will help diversify the ski club as the kids grow, improve, and look to the next level of skiing.
Emily Coombs gives a young skier some encouragement before heading down the hill. Coombs hopes introducing children to skiing at a young age will help diversify the ski club as the kids grow, improve, and look to the next level of skiing. (Photo: Ryan Dorgan)

When Skiing Collides with Immigration Politics

The Doug Coombs Foundation was created to subsidize skiing and open up the sport to a broader audience. Now the Jackson, Wyoming–based organization finds itself on the front lines in the battle over undocumented workers.

Emily Coombs gives a young skier some encouragement before heading down the hill. Coombs hopes introducing children to skiing at a young age will help diversify the ski club as the kids grow, improve, and look to the next level of skiing.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Mariana Garcia never pictured herself as a skier. She and her husband, Nicolas, are both immigrants from Mexico, and they live with their four kids in Jackson, WY, on the outskirts of a whitewashed bubble of wealth. For years, the couple worked long shifts at a local grocery store or fast-food joints to make ends meet, with little time for anything else. Winters in their two-bedroom apartment were exceptionally dreary. “Before I skied, I just felt the winter was so cold,” Mariana said.

She told me this one Saturday in January at the base of Snow King Mountain, where it was clear that the family dread of winter had vanished. In the past six years, every member of the family has learned to ski, and Nicolas is now an instructor at a local ski hill.

The Garcias’ ski weekend—and all their ski experiences—were made possible by the Doug Coombs Foundation, a charity Emily Coombs created in the name of her late husband, the legendary extreme skier, that funds ski lessons for low-income children. Mariana and Nicolas’ wages aren’t nearly enough to cover a family’s ski habit (the season-long lessons her kids receive would alone be about $1,600 per winter). But the Coombs Foundation pays for everything the kids need. It also foots the bill for Mariana’s lessons and half the price of her equipment rentals, and it covered costs for Nicolas’ instructor training. The foundation supports any low-income families, but since Jackson’s poorest are overwhelmingly Latino, the bulk of those served—about 95 percent of the 194 skiers enrolled this year—are Hispanic.

Jackson’s tourist-fueled economy depends largely on the immigrant workers who have historically enjoyed few of the perks of mountain-town life. While census data reflects a per-capita income in Jackson of $39,300, the average for those who identify as Hispanic is only $14,400. That discrepancy leads to less community involvement, feelings of estrangement, and limited upward mobility.

Here, where the gulf between rich and poor is one of the largest in the country, the Doug Coombs Foundation hopes to close that gap in ways more far-reaching than just the ski hill. Research suggests that outdoor sports help children develop positive skills and personality traits that follow them into adulthood. And for parents like Nicolas and Mariana, skiing can anchor them to the community. The couple says they never expected to embrace Jackson—or for Jackson to embrace them back—when they moved here 14 years ago. It’s a connection made at a precarious time. Like many Latinos in Jackson, the Garcias are undocumented immigrants. But by skiing, they make a statement that regardless of income, race, or citizenship, they too belong in Jackson. (We’ve changed the names of all individuals in this story to protect the identities of undocumented workers and their families.)

Emily Coombs had a complicated relationship with skiing at the time she started the foundation. She and Doug were royalty in the sport—among the best big-mountain skiers on the planet. But when Doug fell to his death off a La Grave cliff in 2006, Emily’s view of the sport soured considerably.

She returned to Jackson and threw herself into raising their then three-year-old son. That included volunteering at his school, where she noticed a grave disparity: There were many Latino kids in Jackson’s elementary classrooms, but none on the soccer field or ski slopes. “They were so segregated from the community…it was heartbreaking,” Coombs said. “So, yeah, it was an easy fix: Let’s take them skiing.”

In 2012, she recruited seven third-graders for ski lessons, and word spread; by season’s end, 28 kids were skiing on Coombs’ dime. Some of Doug’s longtime sponsors chipped in, and the Doug Coombs Foundation was born.

Applicants are screened by income—qualifying for free or reduced lunch is the bar, with a few exceptions—but that’s a proxy for Coombs’ true intention of helping out the local Latino community. “A lot of people will say, ‘Hey, let’s make this for the white kids who are middle class,’ and I’m like, no!” Emily told me, pounding the table for effect. “There are scholarship programs out there for those kids. This is different. It is for those kids who come from poverty, who are marginalized, who live in the shadows.”

Here, where the gulf between rich and poor is one of the largest in the country, the Doug Coombs Foundation hopes to close that gap in ways more far-reaching than just the ski hill.

Sara Garcia, 13, Nicolas and Mariana’s oldest child, was an early enrollee. For her, skiing has proved an important athletic and social outlet. “At school, everybody would talk about skiing, and it would always make me feel lonely because there was a big group of kids who were skiing and snowboarding,” she said. “But after skiing, it helped me become close friends with more people.”

Sara’s freeskiing skills are rare for low-income children across America. In her research, Kaisa Snellman, who studies income inequality and social mobility at INSEAD, a university in Paris, has found that American participation in extracurricular activities has essentially become a luxury good. In 1992, 47 percent of white individuals within the wealthiest quartile of their high schools played sports during their senior year, compared to only 29 percent of the poorest quartile. A dozen years later, the gap expanded—50 percent of kids in the upper echelon played sports while the rate among low-income youth fell to 25 percent.

The legacy of wealthier kids having more access to sports, especially those with a high barrier to entry, extends beyond high school. Snellman argues that it sets them up better for lifelong health, college admissions, professional networking, and personal development. Numerous studies have linked participation in athletics to better grades, higher incomes, and civic participation later in life. “Extracurriculars give a window into what we can’t really measure,” Snellman said.

Nowhere is this advantage more evident than in the growing partnership between the Doug Coombs Foundation and the Jackson Hole Ski Club. Twenty-eight Coombs Foundation skiers now participate in the program, up from two in 2016. Brian Krill, the ski club’s executive director, and Coombs made the perfect match: She was looking for access to top-notch coaches and an established funding pipeline, and he was bent on diversifying the club. “With the old-school ski club model,” Krill told me, “there would be absolutely no way that kids whose parents are service workers could do this. Fifteen-hundred bucks [tuition], plus a season pass, plus travel—there’s no way. It does create a real divide.”

I caught up with Jamie Bemis’ freeride team, which includes Sara Garcia and three other girls from the foundation, to see the skill development in action at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Aboard the Bridger gondola, Bemis launched into a midseason performance review. “Let’s go around and share what a new accomplishment would be for the rest of the season,” she said. The responses were pointed: Blanca wanted to ski the Tower Three chute, one of Jackson’s iconic steep runs, without falling. Sara’s goal was to avoid leaning back, and Esbeidy was hoping for smoother turns.

On the snow, Bemis led the skiers through various challenges. When they screwed up, she razzed them: “You did it wrong! I saw you speed check; both of you are kicked off the team!” The threats were in jest, but the message was clear. There were no atta-girls for those who didn’t perform.

Ski clubs are practically factories for Ivy Leaguers and Olympians, and the association gives the Coombs skiers yet another leg up: Research shows that employers and admissions officers alike have positive associations with elite sports like skiing. Since Dartmouth is full of skiers, goes the conventional wisdom, a skier might be a good fit at Dartmouth. The Coombs skiers get unprecedented access to such a world as equals, a chance to change their own ideas of what their future holds and a real way to pursue it. “We have kids who the are sons and daughters of Olympians,” Krill said. “It’s pretty cool to see the kid of a housekeeper get to the top of the mountain with them and do the same thing.”

Here’s how Jackson’s economy works: The super-rich buy houses, wowed by the region’s outdoor scenery, recreation, and lack of a state income tax. Others vacation here, pumping millions into hotels, restaurants, and ski areas. Hospitality remains a labor-intensive business, and the folks at the bottom of the chain make very little. Latinos overwhelmingly fall into that group.

“They work maybe two, maybe three jobs. They’re here to work, to raise their families, and then send money home to Mexico,” said Estela Torres, who works for One22, a local social advocacy group. Skyrocketing home prices, she says, are forcing families to double up in apartments, and some move across Teton Pass to Idaho, which poses a risk for undocumented immigrants when they have to find housing and employment in a new location. “It’s a hard life, and you are always under the shadow of deportation.”

By no means is this a Jackson-only phenomenon. Cornell University sociologist Daniel Lichter studies what he calls the “new destinations” for immigrants—communities far from large cities, let alone the border, that have seen an explosion of Hispanic immigrants over the past 30 years. In semi-remote resort areas like Jackson Hole and Napa Valley, hospitality jobs have stoked in-migration. “People understand that these populations are essential for the good operation of business, so you overlook the situation,” Lichter says.

Service workers living alongside global titans of commerce makes Jackson, by some measures, the most unequal place in America. According to an Economic Policy Institute analysis, Jackson’s wealthiest 1 percent earn, on average, 213 times more money than the average earner in the bottom 99 percent. Because of Jackson’s small population, one or two billionaires skew the average. But what’s clear is that most immigrants make substandard wages, says Mark Price, an economist who worked on the EPI report.

The partnership gives Coombs skiers unprecedented access to such a world as equals, a chance to change their own ideas of what their future holds and a real way to pursue it.

In the 1990s, immigrants started arriving in Jackson, many from the tiny state of Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City, with seasonal permits for low-skill work. Large numbers decided to stick around—often illegally—and employers were more than happy to retain the cheap labor. As that first wave has had kids and, in some cases, grandkids, Jackson’s population is now 25 percent Hispanic, up from 12 percent in 2000. Schools reflect that diversity: Jackson Hole Middle School is about 40 percent Latino, while kindergarten and first-grade classes trend closer to 50 percent.

The slow transition from seasonal worker to permanent resident has led the Latino community to frequently feel like outsiders, despite having lived here for years, says Jorge Moreno, a professional translator and longtime community activist. But as Jackson has become a home rather than a stopover, Latinos, and undocumented workers in particular, have started to make gains despite the unique challenges they face, Moreno says. They’re starting businesses, advocating for their rights, and becoming more involved in schools and nonprofits. As is evident on Saturdays at Snow King, Latinos have been coming out of the shadows and asserting themselves in the community.

The Trump administration’s tougher stance on immigration has begun to change that. “I think people were more relaxed before Trump got elected, and now they’re scared,” Torres said. “It’s a panic situation.”

“We’re just trying to stay safe,” Juliana Marquez told me as I entered her apartment. On the evening I visited, Mia, an eleven-year-old member of the Coombs Foundation and a ski club racer, already had gym clothes on; after an afternoon of slalom practice, it was time for indoor soccer with her friends. Nicole, eight, and Paula, five, are also involved in the Doug Coombs Foundation.

Marquez has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protection that remains on legal life support, and her partner, Antonio, is undocumented. He has already been deported once, one week after Mia was born; it took a year before the couple could scrape together the $7,000 to hire a coyote to bring him back to the United States. A path to citizenship for Antonio is unthinkable, as anti-immigration politicians have opposed the longstanding policy of allowing families to migrate together, and the two contend daily with fear of Antonio’s deportation. Their kids, all American-born citizens, know nothing of Mexico.

“We’re just living in fear that Immigration is going to show up,” Marquez told me. “It’s pulling families apart.”

Around the time we were discussing this over dinner, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were pulling into Jackson after a 280-mile drive from Casper; they would leave the next day with two individuals in their detention. Later that afternoon, after ICE had left, I walked to the office of immigration attorney Elisabeth Trefonas. Inside, an undocumented woman was sitting stone-faced by the front desk, still afraid to leave the safest place in town. Another man donning a cowboy hat was questioning Trefonas, wondering when his undocumented friend, too afraid to leave his house, could come into the daylight.

“It wasn’t like that before,” Trefonas told me in her office. “This person—the cowboy’s friend—“has no prior criminal history, no prior contact with Immigration, and he’s too scared to leave his house. That’s new.”

One can argue that deportation and its associated anxiety is the price undocumented immigrants pay to live here. I asked Trefonas why she chooses to represent these folks. “I like my clients,” she said. “They prove to me every day why I should be grateful. And they prove every day that they’re strong. Why wouldn’t I want to work for that person?” I looked up from my notes, and she was silently crying.

Her answer made me think of something Marquez had told me previously. Juliana and Antonio’s three daughters, Mia in particular, are showing promise in both skiing and soccer. The previous summer, the couple traveled all across the Mountain West to watch Mia’s soccer tournaments. It’s a quintessential summertime activity for soccer moms, but Juliana’s travel comes with stark consequences. Antonio risks detention every time he drives; if Congress doesn’t enact permanent DACA protection, then Juliana could eventually face a similar threat.

“I don’t have words to explain how proud I am for my daughter. It’s such a good, beautiful feeling,” she said. “And then when I think that our lives could change any minute—I don’t want her life to change. I’m afraid of not being able to offer her the same opportunities in Mexico.”

Trefonas brought up a similar sentiment: “If you have kids, and you know that there is no opportunity for them [in Mexico], what would you go through to preserve that opportunity for them?”

The Doug Coombs Foundation has expanded beyond skiing; come summer, students are given tuition assistance for soccer leagues, and they can join hiking and rock climbing trips. Last year, Coombs took a vanload of kids to nearby Grand Teton National Park. It was the first time many had visited. “They call it a border crossing,” she said. “As we pulled up to the park entrance, one kid joked, ‘Everybody duck!’ They all laughed, but it’s also pretty sad.”

One sport to the next—skiing, rock climbing, hiking—Coombs is exposing these kids to activities that make Jackson a destination for outdoor enthusiasts around the world and that are fundamental pieces of growing up here. But doors opened aren’t always easy to walk through. Jordan Vargas, 13, told me that when he first joined the ski club’s race team, he was singled out. “Everybody said, ‘How come you’re here? You’re poor.’” Mia, Juliana and Antonio’s child, experienced similar pushback.

Coombs is exposing these kids to activities that make Jackson a destination for outdoor enthusiasts around the world and that are fundamental pieces of growing up here. But doors opened aren’t always easy to walk through.

Ridicule can be an unfortunate symptom of integration, but it’s happening at an early age (meanness is no rare phenomenon in middle school), and it doesn’t seem to be weighing down Jordan and Mia. “Some of the kids who said those things started being my friends. They saw what I could do on the hill,” Jordan said with a sly grin.

It wasn’t Coombs’ original goal, but she’s running a sort of longitudinal experiment. The kids and parents in her organization participate in an activity that was recently unattainable, a pursuit only for the wealthy and connected in a town that almost exclusively caters to that group’s needs. Whether the children reap all the potential benefits remains to be seen—some of the first foundation skiers entered high school this year—but the families already have a stronger sense of belonging in Jackson and are giving back more fruitfully to the community as a result.

I thought about this at Snow King as I talked with Mariana. She and Nicolas break the law every day by staying in the United States, but they’re far from the violent-criminal immigrant we’re so often presented with in today’s political discourse. Mariana is a taxpaying member of the community with four kids in the local school district. She skis just like the rest of her peers, and her husband teaches others how to do the very thing that’s so ingrained in Jackson’s identity.

With her daughter Laura leaning against her leg, Mariana glanced up the hill where her sons were skiing. “I decided, yeah, I love Jackson,” she said. “I want to stay here forever.”

Lead Photo: Ryan Dorgan