What should a community do to protect its immigrants?
A conservative county in Colorado grapples over a new political reality for its refugee and immigrant residents.
On a sunny morning in early March, over 400 people hit the sidewalks of Greeley, a small city on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. A diverse crowd in sweatshirts, blue jeans, robes, ankle-length skirts and headscarves, they marched to show their support for the city’s sizable refugee and immigrant population. They started at the University of Northern Colorado, wound toward downtown and ended up at the Global Refugee Center, a local nonprofit.
The route was no coincidence: Greeley is an island of cultural and intellectual diversity in a conservative, rural county. Refugees and undocumented workers help keep the agricultural economy afloat, and the university’s international student population has grown in recent years. By most accounts, these new residents have settled in with relative ease.
But as the targets of President Donald Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and new security measures, many have spent the last few months anxious about possible deportations, arrests and general hostility. Though Trump’s latest “travel ban,” which would have suspended immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries, has been blocked, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is stepping up detainments, arresting hundreds of immigrants nationwide. In Greeley, this new political reality has presented local leaders with sometimes uncomfortable choices: What can — and should — the community do to make its new residents feel safe?
Greeley was founded in the 19th century as a utopian colony, whose white settlers emphasized communal living and egalitarian values. Today, surrounding Weld County is fiercely conservative; last November, Trump won here by 22 points. Weld County is one of the country’s top agricultural producers, and Greeley’s largest non-government employers are the university, a wind-turbine manufacturer, the hospital system, and JBS USA, which runs a large beef-processing plant on the city’s north end. Migrant and undocumented workers, along with refugees fleeing war and environmental disasters, fill most of the meatpacking jobs. Several hundred Somalis now live here, along with refugees from Myanmar and Ethiopia. On campus, there are 395 international students from 47 countries.
“Our economy depends on undocumented and Latino people,” and the university is made stronger by its diverse student population, says Matt Birnbaum, one of several Northern Colorado professors leading efforts to protect international and immigrant students and community members. “If we’re not going to protect them, that’s troubling. ”
Three days after the election, Northern Colorado president Kay Norton sent a two-minute video to students and faculty condemning verbal attacks over “identity” and “affiliation” that, according to student reports, spiked following a Trump campaign rally on campus on Halloween. She described the school as “a family” where everyone is “welcome and necessary.”
But students criticized Norton’s message as tepid and insincere, with some calling her dismissive of harassment. Fifty students protested near her office, chanting “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Kay Norton has got to go!” Then they went to the school board of trustees to demand her termination, along with increased funding for student centers that serve minorities.
Faculty members got involved, too, delivering a “sanctuary petition” in November. It urged Norton to refuse to share students’ personal information with federal authorities, to resist immigration detainments on campus, and to publicly back Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama administration program that enables undocumented youth who grew up in the U.S. to work or attend college without fear of deportation.
Anthropology professor Whitney Duncan, who helped organize the petition effort, says many faculty felt an “urgent need” to show support for DACA and immigrant students, considering Greeley’s history. Just over a decade ago, ICE agents stormed a local meatpacking plant and arrested 273 undocumented workers. Many locals still remember the raid and its aftershocks, as parents were detained and, in many cases, deported, leaving behind spouses and children.
In response, the university’s board of trustees passed a resolution in support of DACA, and Norton joined a group of over 600 university presidents who signed a pro-DACA statement. But Northern Colorado stopped short of declaring itself a “sanctuary” school. In a January campus-wide email, Norton argued that the term lacked a meaningful definition.
University leaders seem “generally supportive and sympathetic,” Duncan says. They’ve started offering trainings for staff on how to handle law enforcement requests for student information without a warrant. But so far, the administration hasn’t committed to take specific steps to support students, such as providing legal counsel or establishing spaces where immigrant students can take refuge during raids.
The president of Washington State University in Pullman — another diverse campus surrounded by a rural population which is 89 percent white — also signed the DACA statement following a sanctuary petition and student walkout in December. A follow-up list of grievances from an undocumented students’ alliance repeats a call for sanctuary campus status and urges Washington State to hire a full-time employee to work with undocumented students, expand diversity training for staff and faculty, increase employment and housing opportunities, and explicitly support a path to citizenship for undocumented youth.
Washington State is “doing everything it can, legally, in order to protect immigrant students,” says Mary Jo Gonzales, the school’s vice president for student affairs. That includes “know your rights” workshops for students and support for the undocumented student group. “But the university doesn’t plan to declare itself a sanctuary campus.” Doing so, Gonzales points out, would not give the school legal cover for resisting a federal warrant to detain an undocumented student. And some administrators warn that sanctuary declarations could provoke Trump to withhold federal funding, as he has threatened to do with cities that refuse to aid federal immigration enforcement.
But the possibility of losing international students also has schools on edge. More than 1 million international students enrolled at U.S. universities in the last academic year, doubling numbers from 15 years ago. The growth reflects a concerted effort by state universities and colleges to court international students who pay higher tuition rates, usually without financial aid, which helps offset shrinking public education budgets. Yet a recent survey found that nearly 40 percent of 250 schools are reporting declines in international applications this year, which some are referring to as the “Trump Effect.”
Nahid, an Iranian graduate student, came to Greeley with her husband and young son in late 2015 after waiting a year for a visa. (Nahid asked HCN to withhold her real name to avoid being targeted.) Her field of study doesn’t exist in Iran, and she wanted her son to receive a secular education. But Trump’s rise has chilled her American experience. Even though his travel ban shouldn’t directly affect her since she has a visa, she feels the order labels her and all other Iranians as “radical” Muslims.
“America is a big symbol of equality,” she says. “There are moments when I have worries that is a myth.”
Nahid, a practicing Muslim, hasn’t felt personally threatened; professors and administrators have made her feel welcome. But she confesses to crying when she thinks about never seeing her family in Iran; she worries about being denied re-entry if she leaves the U.S. She still hopes to work and raise her son in the U.S., but admits that if she were deciding on graduate school today, she would look at universities in other countries. “We feel so uncertain and fearful about our tomorrow,” she says.
Uncertainties are simmering off campus, too.
Refugees generally feel welcome in Greeley, says Entisar Tuha, who works at the Global Refugee Center, which helps them learn English, find work and settle into their new community. “But after the election, there’s also a lot of fear that their immigration status can change or they can be deported.” Born in Ethiopia, Tuha came to Colorado in 2011 to live with her mother. She got a green card and is now attending community college. Since the election, she says, the center’s citizenship classes have been fully booked with refugees rushing to complete the process.
Immigrant-rights activists, meanwhile, are trying to calm nerves, says Sylvia Martinez, spokeswoman for Latinos Unidos, a local advocacy group. This February, false rumors of ICE highway checkpoints and raids in Greeley led some people to skip work and keep their children home from school. Martinez, the daughter of migrant farmworkers who grew up working alongside undocumented laborers, says it’s crucial to dispel inaccurate reports so immigrants don’t feel intimidated or quit working and lose their incomes. At the same time, she acknowledges cause for concern: “A raid can happen.”
Martinez is speaking with local churches about serving as safe havens for undocumented families. Since February, Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented Mexican with three U.S.-born children, has been living in a Denver Unitarian church after skipping a meeting with ICE. So far, federal agents have been reluctant to arrest immigrants taking shelter in churches.
Trump has said he will not revoke DACA, and claims that ICE is only targeting dangerous criminals. The latest version of the executive order suspending entry of immigrants and refugees from six countries does not affect current visa holders and, on paper, allows for travel waivers.
But the president has often changed his positions, and his aggressive moves to deport immigrants and ban Muslims have unsettled communities with changing demographics. At a Feb. 28 city council meeting, Rochelle Galindo, Greeley’s only Latina representative, proposed a resolution stating that Greeley “stands in solidarity” with its residents regardless of immigration status. Mayor Tom Norton responded belligerently, railing against sanctuary cities. Another councilman told Galindo, “You’re in the wrong community, I think.” Both men later apologized.
A few days later, Galindo shared the story with the crowd gathered on campus for the march. “If someone can say that to someone born and raised here,” she said, “imagine what they say to immigrants.” A moment later, Martinez took the mic, delivering a message she keeps repeating to local business owners, officials, professors, students, citizens and undocumented people — all of whom make the community what it is and will be: “We cannot sit on the sidelines.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News. High Country News Correspondent Joshua Zaffos writes from Fort Collins, Colorado.
Header image: Iraqi immigrant Mutaz Said with his family in Sun Valley. Photo by Allen Tian.
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