Chasing reform in the wake of the Fort Morgan Wildcat Dairy raid

‘Oh, you’re not criminals? Bam! Criminal charges. Now you’re criminals. Adios.’

Chasing reform in the wake of the Fort Morgan Wildcat Dairy raid

Three hundred immigrant-rights activists traveled from across the state last month to Greeley for a rally and march to urge Congressman Cory Gardner to support comprehensive immigration reform. Among the participants stood Antonia Faudoa, and her three children, Tania, 14, Jenni, 10, and toddler Kevin. For the Faudoa family, this wasn’t just another rally. This was personal.

A year and a half earlier, just after 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 1, 2011, Antonia heard someone banging on the front door of her trailer home in the rural northeastern Colorado town of Fort Morgan. She quieted her two waking daughters, took a deep breath and then stepped outside into the early morning light. Three U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and a Morgan County sheriff deputy stood outside the trailer. They asked Antonia about her husband, Edmundo. She said he had started his 12-hour shift at the Wildcat Dairy at 4:00 that morning. He was at work. The officers hurried away. Antonia phoned her husband to let him know that ICE was on their way. “Too late,” Mundo told her. “They’re already here. Take care of the kids. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Antonia’s heart sank. In the 15 years she and her husband had lived in Fort Morgan since migrating from Mexico, she had never felt so alone.

That day, 20 warrants were issued and 11 immigrant workers from the local Wildcat Dairy were rounded up, arrested and transported to Morgan County Jail. They each faced multiple criminal and immigration charges related to identity theft and impersonation. Bond for each was initially set at an astonishing $50,000. That’s more than twice what one worker made in an entire year’s work at the dairy. Even the judge agreed that the bonds were too high and later lowered them for some of the men. Still, the situation was grim.

I first met Antonia three days after the raid when I helped organize a meeting at a local restaurant to offer legal and community support to the affected families. What I remember most was the kids. Some clung to their moms, worried. Others played or drew pictures, blissfully unaware. The women who attended the meeting were almost too scared to ask the questions that were on everyone’s minds. Antonia stepped forward: “Will ICE be coming back? Am I going to see my husband again? How am I going to pay this month’s rent and feed my kids? Why did this happen?”

We were all wondering the same thing. Why was this happening? For starters, after the huge 2006 George W. Bush-era raids on the Swift meat-packing plant in Greeley and several other locations across the country, where ICE officers decked out in riot gear arrested hundreds of workers, the Obama administration generally avoided the bad publicity of large-scale raids. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had spoken publicly about the need to focus limited enforcement resources on deporting terrorists, dangerous criminals and the employers who hired undocumented workers instead of the workers themselves. What’s more, the agricultural industry in Northeastern Colorado was the backbone of the rural economy, and immigrant workers were, and continue to be, vital to its workforce. The raid in Fort Morgan was the first Colorado had seen in years. What was going on?

The Fort Morgan raid marked a turning point and an insidious shift in ICE’s strategy toward criminalizing immigrant workers. Instead of merely rounding unauthorized workers up and deporting them, ICE collaborated with local law enforcement officials to charge workers with multiple felonies, the intent being to cast them as priorities for deportation. Among immigrants and their supporters, it seemed to be ICE’s way of responding to activists’ cries following the Greeley raids of “we are workers; we are not criminals.” Oh, you’re not criminals? Bam. Criminal charge. Now you’re a criminal. Adios.

Of the 11 workers who were initially arrested, five pleaded guilty and were deported immediately. The six who remained decided to fight their cases, and in so doing a new organization, aptly named Amanecer (meaning dawn or awakening in Spanish), was born. Antonia became a key leader of the mostly female organization, and Amanecer’s first goal was to get their husbands out of jail.

I’ve organized people in Colorado around immigration issues for nearly a decade. In all that time, I’ve never seen a community come together in the way that people united in Fort Morgan in the aftermath of the raid. The workers’ families scraped together the last of their savings to hire private attorneys to defend the workers against the criminal charges. Amanecer organized the town’s first-ever immigrant rights march, led by the workers’ children, down the main streets of Fort Morgan to the jail on Father’s Day weekend. The immigrant rights coalition wrote an editorial condemning ICE’s harsh tactics. Antonia’s then-7-year-old daughter, Jenni, spoke at a political rally alongside U.S. Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL).

All their hard work paid off. On November 23, 2011, just days before Thanksgiving, the district attorney for Morgan County announced that he had dismissed all the criminal charges against the six remaining workers.

Now, a year and a half later, Antonia’s husband Mundo is back at home with his family and has work authorization from the federal government. Antonia’s oldest daughter Tania, now 14, no longer suffers from the panic attacks that were at one point so severe that she had to be rushed to the local hospital. Having her dad home safe has eased her anxiety tremendously.

Perhaps the person who has been most transformed by the ordeal is Antonia. Along with the other members of Amanecer, she recently spoke to some of the American business owners in Fort Morgan. To her surprise, they all signed her petition in support of reform. She jokes, “This is how I’m going to learn English, by talking to the businessmen about immigration reform!” She also beams with pride, and tells me how her daughter, Jenni, now 10, approached U.S. Representative Cory Gardner at a recent town hall meeting. “She went up to him and told him her story, that she now wants to be a lawyer or a congresswoman herself, because of the raids and immigration,” she said.

Antonia’s voice becomes more serious when she talks about the raid and its impacts on her and her family. “All of this opened up something inside of me. Honestly, fighting for justice is my passion. If America is really free, then prove it. The only thing we want as immigrants is to be able to move freely, but we can’t, which is why we need immigration reform,” she said. Congress is stalemated, Antonia knows, and the government is shut down. But she is determined. She knows what’s at stake. If the U.S. House doesn’t take up an immigration reform bill soon, chances are that, as the steady drumbeat of deportations continues, another mother will have to figure out how to tell her kids that their dad won’t be coming home from work and may not be coming home at all.

She isn’t about to let that happen.

[ Dairy barnsweep by UWMadisonCALS ]

The deportations will continue until morale improves

A primer on the past five years inside the broken immigration system

The deportations will continue until morale improves

We’ve all heard the common refrain that “the immigration system is broken.”  Everyone acknowledges the problem. It’s the one thing that Tom Tancredo and I can agree on.  Trying to figure out what the solutions should look like, though, requires understanding of what works and what’s broken in the current policies we have on the books.

Here in this blog space “Hustlin’ for Justicia,” I’ll offer weekly dispatches from the front lines of the broken immigration system. For those of you who aren’t immigration geeks like me, I figure it’s helpful to start by looking back and putting the policies that influence the current debate in context.  The past five years of immigration policy under the Obama administration have been confusing and contradictory.  The same president who deported a record-breaking 1.5 million immigrants in his first term by means of highly controversial programs like Secure Communities also offered a reprieve to deportation for 400,000 immigrant youth with the Deferred Action program last year.  Those are some seriously mixed messages.

The bad:

The Bush administration deported 2 million people in eight years, which averaged out to 20,964 deportations per month. Obama, the self-professed reformer, deported 1.4 million in just half that time, with an average of 32,886 monthly.  How did Obama deport nearly as many people in four years as President Bush did in eight?

Under Obama, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducts immigration raids at worksites, as it did in 2011 at the Wildcat Dairy in Fort Morgan, in ways that mimic the Bush-era 2006 raid in at the Swift meatpacking plant in Greeley.

By and large, though, Obama has preferred to avoid the bad publicity that accompanies large-scale immigration raids. Having posses, cops and ICE agents show up at a worksite in the morning to round up immigrant workers for deportation, and then having a bunch of crying children with no one to pick them up from school that afternoon tend to make unhappy headlines.

Instead, over the past five years, ICE has capitalized on opportunities to increase deportation numbers in ways that aren’t as overt. The difference between ICE under Bush and ICE today is that Obama administration kicks people out of the country far more quietly.

The ugly:  

What could be less flashy than a data-sharing program?  With a name straight out of the “1984” doublethink playbook, the Secure Communities (SCOMM) program – first implemented by the outgoing Bush administration in fourteen jurisdictions in October 2008, one month before Obama won the presidential election – increased the exchange of information about immigrants and augmented collaboration between local police and federal immigration agents. As soon as Obama took office, one of his first policy directives on immigration was to implement SCOMM nationwide.  By March 2011, 1,210 jurisdictions had put the program into place, and SCOMM is now operating in all 3,181 jurisdictions nationwide.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version of how SCOMM actually works. Cops arrest a person, and the arrestee is booked at the local jail.  Then the arrestee’s fingerprints are run through SCOMM’s national immigration database. If his or her name pops up as an immigration violator, ICE then issues a “hold” that prompts police to detain the arrestee for up to 48 additional hours (not including weekends and federal holidays) until he or she can be picked up and placed into an immigration detention center to be deported. All this, regardless of whether the person was actually ever convicted, and with no differentiation between an arrest for a minor traffic violation or a violent crime.  The kicker is that the local jails foot the bill for holding ICE detainees for the additional time.

SCOMM was controversial from the start. Though ICE touted the program as a tool to deport immigrants with serious criminal records, its own statistics demonstrated that less than 20 percent of people deported had been convicted of a serious crime. In Colorado, a broad coalition of critics condemned the program for fear that it would lead to fewer immigrants reporting crimes and cooperating with law enforcement.  Outgoing Governor Bill Ritter faced lots of criticism when he signed the agreement with ICE to implement SCOMM in Colorado just days before he left office in January 2011.  Nevertheless, the program was rapidly implemented here and across the country, with stunning efficacy.

The SCOMM deportation machine was so adept at flagging record numbers of immigrants for deportation that it earned Obama the moniker “Deporter-in-Chief.”  In 2012 alone, his administration deported 409,849 people, even as he made campaign promises to pass immigration reform.

And finally, some good:

Two years ago, with immigration courts backlogged nationwide a desire to win Latino votes in Obama’s re-election, the administration took two steps to try to provide immigrant communities some relief from its own deportation policies.

First, in December 2011, ICE selected Denver and Baltimore to pilot a new program, referred to as prosecutorial discretion, to administratively close deportation cases against individuals who met certain criteria (such as their length of time in the United States, criminal histories, and family ties) that deemed them “low priorities for removal.” But, six months later, the program was criticized for having closed less than two percent of pending cases before the Immigration Court.

Following escalating protests – led mostly by undocumented youth — at Obama campaign headquarters in Denver and other swing states across the country, the administration announced in June 2012 a second initiative promising administrative relief to immigrants.  The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows certain undocumented immigrant youth to apply for a work permit and a reprieve from deportation for two years. Last week, DACA celebrated its first anniversary since its implementation on August 15, 2012, and the program has been transformative for the approximately 400,000 young people whose applications were approved in the past year. Sarahi Hernandez, a student at Metro State University of Denver and one of the 8,335 Coloradans who’ve received DACA so far, says her life is radically different now.  “DACA opened up many doors that had been closed since I can remember. I am able to further my education, work, drive, and provide.  More than anything, DACA allows me to value the everyday things.”

Where do we go from here?

DACA has created a lot of political opportunity both at the federal level and state levels.  Obama appeased immigrant and Latino voters frustrated by his deportation policies and won re-election.  Also, following the contentious election, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and seven other senators known as the bipartisan Gang of Eight passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill in June 2013.  During this year’s state legislative session, DACA’s success helped propel the bipartisan ASSET bill to allow undocumented youth who attended Colorado high schools to pay in-state tuition rates to passage.  Colorado also repealed SB90, the legislative predecessor to Secure Communities, and allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses.

Still, progress is slow. Even if every single DACA-eligible young person applied for and received Deferred Action – and to date, only about half have applied – that would impact less than one million of the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Even though the Senate passed its immigration reform bill, the measure’s likelihood of passing the House of Representatives is inching closer and closer to a-snowball’s-chance-in-hell territory.  And, as House members hem and haw on whether to take up an immigration reform bill in Congress and as pundits weigh in on the political angles, police and the feds, through SCOMM, each day are rounding up hundreds more immigrants. The federal deportation machine keeps rolling. Families continue to be ripped apart. And the Obama administration keeps breaking records for booting human beings beings across the border because they happen not have been lucky enough to have been born here.

[ Image by Chandra Marsono ]

ICE Frees Colorado Immigration Activist Jeanette Vizguerra

Immigrants, documented and undocumented and fueled by necessity and dreams, are risk-takers; the kind of people the country has always depended upon

ICE Frees Colorado Immigration Activist Jeanette Vizguerra

What would you do if your mother, thousands of miles away, was dying and it would jeopardize your immigration status to see her one last time?

It was February 2, 2004, my junior year at college. I’d just stepped out of my linguistics class when my dad phoned to tell me that my mom’s diabetes had worsened. She was in Intensive Care at a hospital in San Antonio, Texas. He told me that I needed to come home. I freaked out. I didn’t have any money for a plane ticket to get home from New Haven, Connecticut. Thankfully, my friends sprang into action. My roommate did my laundry, packed my suitcase, and rushed me to the airport, where I flew home with a ticket bought by my dean that afternoon. My dad picked me up at the airport just hours before mom passed away early the next morning. At least I was able to hold her hand at the end.

In the years since, given my work with immigrant communities, I often find myself reflecting on that frantic day. Even as a broke college student, it was easy for me to drop everything to be with my family when it mattered most.

But for my friend Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigrant rights activist and undocumented mother of three kids who are U.S. citizens, the September 2012 phone call about her mother’s rapidly progressing terminal cancer presented her with a far tougher set of decisions. By the time the call came from Mexico, Jeanette had been battling for three years to stay in the United States. A 2009 traffic stop had landed her in immigration proceedings, and the government had ordered her deportation from the country (the feds prefer the antiseptic word “removal”). Jeanette and her lawyer were fighting the order in the hopes that, while her appeal was pending, the laws might change and allow her to remain in the country she had called home for more than fifteen years.

Jeanette’s first decision was whether to stay in the United States or travel to Mexico City to be with her mother in the final days of her battle with cancer. By leaving, she risked permanent separation from her husband and three young children, ages 9, 7, and 2, and also jeopardized her legal case at the Board of Immigration Appeals. Still, with the possibility of never seeing her mom alive again being too much to bear, she left for her bedside. But by the time she arrived in Mexico City, her mother had already died. Devastated, all Jeanette could do is wonder, “¿Y ahora qué? What now?”

After burying her mother, Jeanette grew depressed in the six months she spent in Mexico City, scrambling to find a job where there were none. Her kids back home in Aurora were struggling emotionally without their mom. Then came the second decision: to risk her life to return to her family. Each year, the bodies of hundreds of migrants who die while attempting to enter the United States are recovered from the U.S. – Mexico border. The journey would be dangerous, but for her family’s sake, Jeanette figured it was a risk she had to take.

Despite what all the anti-immigrant politicians say, the border is more secure than ever. Jeanette was promptly arrested by the Border Patrol on April 20, 2013, near Presidio, Texas, a tiny town in the Big Bend area. But instead of being immediately deported, she was shuttled for the next six weeks through three different holding facilities and immigration detention centers. Her appeal was dismissed. On June 7, in an unusual move by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Jeanette was temporarily released from the El Paso detention center and allowed to reunite with her kids under an ICE detainee supervision program, but rearrested during her first supervisory check-in six weeks later. She was detained at the GEO Detention Center in Aurora, just a few miles away from husband and kids who struggled to make do without her.

Jeanette’s only hope to stay in the U.S. was for ICE to grant her a discretionary stay of removal. Friends and immigrant rights organizations circulated petitions, organized vigils outside the detention center, and met with various members of Congress to urge ICE to grant her stay. Jeanette’s application for a stay of removal was initially denied on Aug. 5, but following waves of phone calls, rallies, and a hunger strike in front of the ICE administrative offices, authorities on Aug. 8 approved her stay and released her from detention.

Sure, decisions have consequences. There are those who will say Jeanette deserves what happened to her. Yet, what purpose is served by not allowing a daughter the ability to see her mom before she dies? What good comes out of locking a mother in an immigration jail at taxpayer expense mere miles away from her kids? And what’s the point of ripping her away from her children’s lives just as her own decision to make a living in the U.S. ripped her from her own mother in Mexico?

Every single day, 1,200 immigrants are removed from this country, and nearly one in four deportees is the parent of least one child who’s a U.S. citizen. Those decisions have consequences, too.

The immigration system in this country is byzantine bordering on ridiculous. The reform package currently being discussed in Congress is at best incomplete and driven by electoral considerations instead of good policy sense. Deportations are at an all-time high, and so are the emotions on all sides of the debate.

This is the backdrop against which I begin “Hustlin’ for Justicia,” my guest-contributor blog for The Colorado Independent. Each Tuesday, I will offer dispatches on immigration, race and culture here at coloradoindependent.com. I welcome your comments and insights. Email me at juliegonzales@me.com.

The bad, the ugly, and finally some good

A primer on the past five years inside the broken immigration system

We’ve all heard the common refrain that “the immigration system is broken.”  Everyone acknowledges the problem. It’s the one thing that Tom Tancredo and I can agree on.  Trying to figure out what the solutions should look like, though, requires understanding of what works and what’s broken in the current policies we have on the books.

Here in this blog space “Hustlin’ for Justicia,” I’ll offer weekly dispatches from the front lines of the broken immigration system.  For those of you who aren’t immigration geeks like me, I figure it’s helpful to look back and put the policies that influence the current debate in context.  The past five years of immigration policy under the Obama administration have been confusing and contradictory.  The same president who deported a record-breaking 1.5 million immigrants in his first term by means of highly controversial programs like Secure Communities also offered a reprieve to deportation for 400,000 immigrant youth with the Deferred Action program last year.  Those are some seriously mixed messages.

 

The bad:  

The Bush administration deported 2 million people in eight years, which averaged out to 20,964 deportations per month. Obama, the self-professed reformer, deported 1.4 million in just half that time, with an average of 32,886 monthly.  How did Obama deport nearly as many people in four years as President Bush did in eight?

Under Obama, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducts immigration raids at worksites, as it did in 2011 at the Wildcat Dairy in Fort Morgan, in ways that mimic the Bush-era 2006 raid in at the Swift meatpacking plant in Greeley.

By and large, though, Obama has preferred to avoid the bad publicity that accompanies large-scale immigration raids. Having a bunch of cops and ICE agents show up at a worksite in the morning to round up immigrant workers for deportation, and then having a bunch of crying children with no one to pick them up from school that afternoon tends to make unhappy headlines.

Instead, over the past five years, ICE has capitalized on opportunities to increase deportation numbers in ways that aren’t as overt. The difference between ICE under Bush and ICE today is that Obama administration kicks people out of the country far more quietly.

 

The ugly:  

What could be less flashy than a data-sharing program?  With a name straight out of the “1984” doublethink playbook, the Secure Communities (SCOMM) program – first implemented by the outgoing Bush administration in fourteen jurisdictions in October 2008, one month before Obama won the presidential election – increased the exchange of information about immigrants and augmented collaboration between local police and federal immigration agents. As soon as Obama took office, one of his first policy directives on immigration was to implement SCOMM nationwide.  By March 2011, 1,210 jurisdictions had implemented the program, and SCOMM is now operating in all 3,181 jurisdictions nationwide.

 

Here’s the CliffsNotes version of how SCOMM actually works. Cops arrest a person, and the arrestee is booked at the local jail.  Then the arrestee’s fingerprints are run through SCOMM’s national immigration database. If his or her name pops up as an immigration violator, ICE then issues a “hold” that prompts police to detain the arrestee for up to 48 additional hours (not including weekends and federal holidays) until he or she can be picked up and placed into an immigration detention center to be deported. All this, regardless of whether the person was actually ever convicted of any crime whatsoever, and with no differentiation between an arrest for a minor traffic violation or a violent crime.  The kicker is that the local jails foot the bill for holding ICE detainees for the additional time.

 

SCOMM was controversial from the start. Though ICE touted the program as a tool to deport immigrants with serious criminal records, its own statistics demonstrated that less than twenty percent of people deported had been convicted of a serious crime. In Colorado, a broad coalition of critics condemned the program for fear that it would lead to fewer immigrants reporting crimes and cooperating with law enforcement.  Outgoing Governor Bill Ritter faced lots of criticism when he signed the agreement with ICE to implement SCOMM in Colorado just days before he left office in January 2011.  Nevertheless, the program was rapidly implemented in here and across the country, with stunning efficacy.

 

In fact, the SCOMM deportation machine was so adept at flagging record numbers of immigrants for deportation that it earned Obama the moniker “Deporter-in-Chief.”  In 2012 alone, Obama deported 409,849 people, even as he made campaign promises to pass immigration reform.

 

…And finally, some good:  

Two years ago, with the Obama’s re-election looming, a desire to win the Latino vote and immigration courts backlogged nationwide, the Obama administration took two steps to try to provide immigrant communities some relief from its own deportation policies.

 

First, in December 2011, ICE selected Denver and Baltimore to pilot a new program, referred to as prosecutorial discretion, to administratively close deportation cases against individuals who met certain criteria (such as their length of time in the United States, criminal histories, and family ties) that deemed them “low priorities for removal.”  However, six months later, the program was criticized for having closed less than two percent of pending cases before the Immigration Court.

 

Following escalating protests – led mostly by undocumented youth — at Obama campaign headquarters in Denver and other swing states across the country, the administration announced in June 2012 a second initiative promising administrative relief to immigrants.  The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows certain undocumented immigrant youth to apply for a work permit and a reprieve from deportation for two years. Last week, DACA celebrated its first anniversary since its implementation on August 15, 2012, and the program has been transformative for the approximately 400,000 whose applications were approved in the past year.   Sarahi Hernandez, a student at Metro State University of Denver and one of the 8,335 Coloradans who have received DACA so far, says that her life is radically different now.  “DACA opened up many doors that had been closed since I can remember. I am able to further my education, work, drive, and provide.  More than anything, DACA allows me to value the everyday things.”

 

Where do we go from here?  

DACA has created a lot of political opportunity both at the federal level and state levels.  Obama appeased immigrant and Latino voters frustrated by his deportation policies and won re-election.  Also, following the contentious election, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and seven other senators known as the bipartisan Gang of Eight passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill in June 2013.  During this year’s state legislative session, DACA’s success helped propel the bipartisan ASSET bill to allow undocumented youth who attended Colorado high schools to pay in-state tuition rates to passage.  Colorado also repealed SB90, the legislative predecessor to Secure Communities, and allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses.

 

Still, progress is slow. Even if every single DACA-eligible young person applied for and received Deferred Action – and to date, only about half have applied – that would impact less than one million of the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.  Even though the Senate passed its immigration reform bill, the measure’s likelihood of passing the House of Representatives is inching closer and closer to a-snowball’s-chance-in-hell territory.  And, as House members hem and haw on whether to take up an immigration reform bill in Congress and as pundits weigh in on the political angles, police and the feds, through SCOMM, each day are rounding up hundreds more immigrants. The federal deportation machine keeps rolling. Families continue to be ripped apart. And the Obama administration keeps breaking records as the number of human beings being booting across the border because they happen not to have been born here inches closer to 2 million with no end in sight.