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Months after protests, Colorado's undocumented immigrants retreat in fear

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Seven months ago, a janitor named Javier stepped out of a Target store in Pueblo. It was around 6:30 a.m.; he had just finished the night shift with his two brothers.

As they walked into the parking lot, Javier noticed that his blue Ford had been broken into. The passenger door window was shattered and his stereo, worth around $250, had been ripped out of the dash. Javier dialed the Pueblo Police Department. An officer arrived and asked for identification from the three brothers. Javier's own was a set of invalid cards; one of them, according to a police report, said simply "Colorado Identification Card," with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and the words, "Not a government document."

The officer thought Javier might be a missing criminal; there was a warrant out for a person with a name that sounded like his. The three brothers, rattled, admitted that they were in the country without papers. They were taken to the Pueblo County jail, where the feds picked them up.

No officer could prove that Javier was the missing offender. But he was deported anyway, according to Jayne Mazur, executive director of Pueblo's Catholic Charities, a group that looked into the incident.

"It happened within hours," she says.

Pueblo Police Chief Jim Billings claims what occurred with Javier was an isolated event. "Our policy does not call for arresting people and taking them into custody for immigration violations," he says.

But many immigrants in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver have seen the deportation, and a slew of similarly disquieting episodes, as veritable punishment for the protests they and a million people nationwide held in parks and streets last spring.

On May 1, tens of thousands marched in Colorado to promote comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. Colorado Springs' Memorial Park hosted nearly 5,000 people wearing white shirts and carrying American flags. In Denver, 75,000 gathered, and in Pueblo, another 1,500.

But on the day of the protests, Gov. Bill Owens signed into law the first in a series of piercing immigration bills, several of which give powerful tools to local law enforcement. One bill which some touted as the country's toughest against illegal immigration effectively bars people without papers from getting government benefits. Another allows the Colorado State Patrol to act like federal agents, in part by bringing undocumented people to the state's main detention center in Aurora. And finally there's Senate Bill 90, also known as the "anti-sanctuary bill," which compels peace officers to report arrested undocumented immigrants to the feds.

"The backlash to having what we think was this great gathering of people is that people who don't see it the same way are frightened by it," says Mazur. "[The new legislation] has created an atmosphere of fear in the immigrant community. There is a more aggressive approach to law enforcement by certain officials."

In the past several months, the immigrants' rights community in Colorado has retreated, relying on behind-the-scenes lobbying work to provoke some reform for the state's estimated 225,000 to 275,000 undocumented immigrants.

In Colorado Springs, for instance, the Catholic Church's Justice for Immigrants campaign has hosted education seminars for citizen congregants. Forty miles south, Pueblo's Catholic Charities launched a "Know Your Rights" series targeting people without papers. And a statewide refugee and immigrant collaborative initiated integration workshops with immigrants and business groups along the Front Range.

But for many grassroots leaders, the days of visible, assertive protesting are gone. Juan Fleites, of Pueblo immigrants' rights group Inmigrante en Marcha, says a September rally in Denver attracted a meager 500 people around 0.5 percent of the number that marched in the city just six months earlier. He could only convince four people from Pueblo to make the trip; the new laws, he says, have made highway driving a deportation risk for undocumented immigrants.

"There was the question of going in a car," says Fleites. "Most people were scared to travel that way."

Gone tomorrow

click to enlarge Victor Orozco, of Colorado Springs American Dream - group, says immigrants are afraid to protest. - JON KELLEY
  • Jon Kelley
  • Victor Orozco, of Colorado Springs American Dream group, says immigrants are afraid to protest.

Before last spring, the nation's immigrants' rights movement was invisible to all but a tightly knit group of undocumented people and their advocates. Lobbying efforts for fair immigration reform were largely overshadowed by the heavy arm of the service and agricultural industries, which often benefit from illegal labor.

It was not until the House passed the restrictionist and now-stalled Sensenbrenner bill which would have made it a felony to be in the country without papers that immigrants staged some of the largest rallies in U.S. history, larger than any Iraq war protest to date.

Victor Orozco, a Colorado Springs construction worker, is one of five core members of American Dream, an immigrants' rights group that planned the local May Day rally. On this December evening in his east side home, he sits on a couch next to a ceramic manger scene and explains the impetus for the protest, word of which was disseminated through Denver's Spanish-language radio stations.

"They wanted to treat us more like criminals and less like human beings," he says of the federal government. "We decided to take it a step further. ... We had to talk to the police to get the park. I told them, "We don't want to cause any trouble. We just want to show that we are simple, hardworking people. We want the community to have the opportunity to know us better.'"

But the Colorado Legislature's summer session saw a slew of anti-immigrant bills, several of which were passed. The protestors considered it a backlash, blaming themselves for the crackdown.

"They said, "Instead of making progress, we are causing trouble. We made the senators think differently. We made them find another way to hurt us,'" says Orozco.

"Right now, there are a lot of people scared to do anything. People had dreams to buy a home here and have a future. Now they have decided not to. They are not sure they are going to stay here. That is the reason they don't want to [protest]: because they think it will get worse."

Orozco says that 10 of his friends, all of whom work in construction, have left Colorado in the past five months because the new laws have made life too difficult. He claims that construction projects around the city are scrambling to find labor.

"We are talking about people with skills," he says.

Undocumented immigrants, in fact, are being forced out of Colorado. The past year has seen three large-scale raids on their employers here. Last week, the feds visited a Greeley meatpacking plant, where 261 workers were arrested as part of a six-state bust. In total, 1,282 people were apprehended, and those not facing criminal charges are likely to be deported. According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE), deportations in Colorado's "area of operation," which also includes Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, have increased from 3,550 to 4,000 in the past fiscal year.

The new laws have aggravated the trend. Since SB 90 forces cooperation between local police and the feds, immigrants who might have slid under the radar are at a greater risk of being caught. Denver's packed immigration courts have doubled their caseloads in the past two years. Today, there are 2,800 pending deportation cases.

"I remember when I was a little girl of 13 or 14," recalls Nadine Triste, a community organizer at Pueblo's Catholic Charities, speaking of past run-ins with the immigration police. "It used to be, "La migra, la migra!' And everyone would run and scatter. And it used to be kind of funny. But you'd realize that someone was here today and they weren't here tomorrow. Or the family that lived down the street wasn't there. And you wondered where they went. I guess I repressed those thoughts.

"A couple of months ago, I was sitting in my office and I thought, "Gosh, this is as bad.' There are people you are working with, your clients. They are here today, and then you can't find them. They are gone tomorrow. There are people we know from church, or the neighbors down the street, and they are gone."

'Bad legislation'

SB 90 seems simple enough. "A peace officer who has probable cause that an arrestee for a criminal offense is not legally present in the United States," it reads, "shall report such arrestee to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement office ..."

But the bill is deceptive. An "arrest" doesn't always mean the stereotypical handcuffs-and-jail scenario; most localities interpret the law in slightly different ways. And in the mind of an undocumented immigrant, the minutiae can mean the difference between making it home after work and being shoved on a bus back to Mexico.

click to enlarge Jayne Mazur and Nadine Triste of Pueblos Catholic - Charities say immigrants have disappeared since a law - enforcement crackdown. - JON KELLEY
  • Jon Kelley
  • Jayne Mazur and Nadine Triste of Pueblos Catholic Charities say immigrants have disappeared since a law enforcement crackdown.

In Pueblo, for example, a policeman could call ICE for "pretty much any violation that carries points," says Billings, the police chief. If an officer catches an illegal immigrant running a red light, he could report that person.

But in Colorado Springs, city officers don't call the feds on traffic offenses. Only a misdemeanor drinking in a car or loitering, for instance would trigger a call to ICE.

It follows that illegals traveling across the state face different regulations depending on where they go. In some places, if they speed 10 mph over the limit, they could find themselves reported.

There are other semantic questions as well; many in Colorado think the bill could lead to racial profiling.

"The way [SB 90] is worded, the officer has to have "probable cause' [to believe someone is undocumented]" says Jeff Joseph, an immigration attorney in Denver. "That is what causes us to have the most concern.

""Probable cause' is not defined. ... If a person speaks Spanish, or has brown skin, or has a Mexican driver's license, that would create the basis for "probable cause.' And if that creates the basis, it is illegal.

"It has created a lot of hysteria," he continues. "There are [fewer] immigrants willing to drive, even though they are entitled to drive. I think what we have seen, and what I have seen anecdotally, is more police chases because people think, "If I stop, I'm going to be deported.' They keep driving."

Catholic Charities and other advocacy groups in Colorado have begun to collect immigrant testimonials regarding the effects of SB 90, which they say is simply "bad legislation" that has deterred immigrants from calling the police, further isolating them. In January, the groups will present the stories to the Colorado Legislature in hopes of reversing the bill.

Denver's Mexican Consulate is investigating 15 cases in which peace officers allegedly abused the law by reporting immigrants without cause. The story of Javier, the Pueblo janitor, is among them.

When a police officer reports an illegal to ICE, as in Javier's case, the feds have 48 hours to pick up the person. If the immigrant has an otherwise clean record, he typically appears in front of an immigration judge and faces either voluntary departure or deportation.

According to Joseph, the feds prefer deportation, since it gets people out of the country and out of crammed detention centers faster. In instances like the Greeley raid, ICE might offer a large group of immigrants a rapid removal; the bus from Denver to Mexico leaves three times a week.

Once an immigrant is back in his home country, he has tripped the "bar," meaning that he can't apply for legal re-entry for another three years or 10 years, if the immigrant's illegal stay in the U.S. was longer than 12 months. And if the person slips back over the border and gets caught again, he can face 20 years in federal prison.

"What we have done," says Triste, "is create this vacuum, and we are holding people hostage."

Disappeared

In two weeks, Fernando*, a Pueblo construction worker, will appear before an immigration judge in a Denver court to explain why he should not be deported. Over the past several months, he and his lawyer have scrambled to collect documents and photos to cobble together a narrative of the life that he and his wife, a U.S. citizen, shared before their separation three years ago. Proof of the marriage could help his case. So could evidence of his wife's hostility; when they split, she stole his ID cards and slashed the family photos he kept in a storage facility, actions that amount to domestic violence, according to his lawyer.

On a Sunday afternoon in December, Fernando pauses from his preparations meetings with the Pueblo paralegal, trips to the bank to petition for old documents, phone calls to friends who might write a letter on his behalf to sit for a few hours on the couch in his "Auntie's" place, a new-looking white home in a grassless subdivision next to the railroad tracks on Pueblo's west side.

click to enlarge Thousands of immigrants and their advocates gathered - in Memorial Park in May. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Thousands of immigrants and their advocates gathered in Memorial Park in May.

Fernando and his 3-year-old daughter Amelia* have just returned from church. He wears a blue striped shirt tucked into a pair of paint-splattered jeans, with shiny black shoes. Amelia, in a jumper, looks over her cousin's shoulder as she writes in a notebook on the far end of the couch, next to a shimmering white and purple Christmas tree.

"The only thing keeping me here is my daughter," says Fernando. "Because nobody is going to help her, or pay for her education and stuff."

Fernando's dilemma began last December, when he was arrested for missing a court date on a pair of traffic offenses. He spent three weeks in county jail, in part for driving without a license; he had been in the country without papers for eight years.

He admitted to being here illegally he didn't have a Social Security number to tell the police, after all and the feds picked him up and took him to Aurora. He bonded out of the detention center last February.

At one time, Fernando was on the path to residency. Before he separated from his citizen wife three years ago "she would go to parties, and she didn't care about her daughter," he says the couple mailed an application to the federal government. It was a petition to apply, a plea for him to enter into the years-long process of becoming legal. And, according to his lawyer, it was approved.

But last fall, Fernando says, his truck was broken into, and his application receipt was stolen from the car. At that time, he was renting a different apartment in Pueblo's south side, one where Amelia imagined that a monster a pair of glowing eyes peered into the window at night. His truck was bashed open in the parking lot; the document, which might have helped his case in the Denver court, is irreplaceable.

Fernando's passport the only legal proof that he exists was stolen after he left Aurora. His wife busted a lock on his Pueblo storage unit, and while grabbing furniture for her Colorado Springs apartment, she cut up his family photos and stole his identification, as well as credit card statements and vehicle paperwork that evidenced their marriage.

Now, with his court date looming, Fernando has no ID to help him recover the documents that might bolster his case.

Nor does he have much time. He works six days a week, waking up at 5:30 in the morning to pack a sack lunch before his uncle picks him up and takes him to Colorado Springs to hang drywall in new homes. He returns home after dark to his apartment or to his aunt's house, depending on whether she can watch Amelia the next morning.

On the days he does stay here, he sleeps next to Amelia in her bed. The twin mattress is covered by a pink felt blanket with ballerinas on it, and is pushed up against a window draped by a knotted Mexican flag.

"She can't go to sleep without me. She is so attached to me," explains Fernando, twisting a red candy wrapper in his hands as he sits on the couch.

"I don't know what is going to happen with me."

But Fernando says he does not regret crossing over nearly a decade ago, when he followed his father's trek to the United States from the border town Juarez. In this country, after all, he became Amelia's father. It took him three attempts to enter; he walked for days, eating junk food along the way to avoid cooking.

Now it is the smaller journeys a trip to the grocery store or a drive to the bank that unnerve him, and thousands of others.

"If you have no license, you are always taking a chance," he says. "You think, "I hope he doesn't pull me over'... If the officer is a nice guy, he lets you go. If not, he will send you to [ICE]."

And that, the simplest equation, is what transpires for Colorado's immigrants. One day, you are here. The next disappeared.

naomi@csindy.com

* Names have been changed to protect the subject and his family.

  • Months after protests, Colorado's undocumented immigrants retreat in fear

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