Ousted Greeley Mayor Says Immigration Anger Blindsided Him

Tom Selders went to Washington last spring to stick up for the immigrants in Greeley. He underestimated the backlash that would follow, which wound up costing him his job.Right up until the end, Tom Selders was optimistic about his chances of winning a third term as Greeley mayor.

After all, he was an incumbent with extensive experience in local government running against a political neophyte.

But Selders, with his measured views on immigration, was blindsided by the intensity of anger and hate felt by so many Greeley residents with regard to immigration and the changing demographics in this town of 94,000 residents. 

On three different mornings in the week before the Nov. 6 election, Selders and members of his campaign stood on street corners in Greeley to greet motorists and passers-by. When the number of thumbs down and raised middle fingers surpassed the friendly waves and honks of approval, Selders knew he had a problem.

He lost the race by a wide margin to former police officer Ed Clark.

Immigration decided the campaign in Greeley, which is a case study of the social conflict and ethnic divisions sown by what has become a bitter national debate.

In the first of an occasional series on the social, economic and political repercussions of the Dec. 12, 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at the Swift & Co. meat-processing plant in Greeley, we hear from Tom Selders, the town’s former mayor.  The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

CC: You went to Washington in May to talk about the impact the raid had on the immigrant community in Greeley. Talk about the event and what you spoke about?

Selders: I spoke for about four minutes before a panel of human rights groups in one of the congressional hearing rooms. It was not technically a congressional hearing. I described Greeley, our long history of agriculture and that we have had a lot of very rapid building in the last few years. Our migrant, our minority population has grown at a very high rate over the last several years, which created a lot of tension. On Dec. 12, 2006, our Swift meat packing plant that employs about 3,000 people – the largest employer in Weld County – was raided, and it made national news. The raid caused further division in the community and caused a great disruption to Swift. I concluded by saying that I hoped the government would hold ICE more accountable, that they not have this same kind of disruptive raid, and that we desperately needed immigration reform. At no time did I call for the suspension of raids. I just said that if ICE is going to conduct raids, I hope they can be more accountable in the future.

CC: Did you anticipate the angry response to your trip?

Selders: I had spoken to my colleagues on city council before I went and nobody voiced any objection. I talked to our city attorney to make sure I wasn’t violating any state or federal laws and he assured me I had the First Amendment right to do and say whatever I wanted to. My trip was not funded by taxpayers. I anticipated there would be some backlash but I guess I underestimated it because as I got off the airplane in Washington that day I turned on my cell phone and I had seven or eight messages already, and most of them were pretty hostile. (Weld County District Attorney) Ken Buck had been contacted by the (Greeley Tribune) and they did a story while I was there. (Buck) said I was obviously not upholding the law by going to Washington. You know just making stuff up in my opinion that he had no basis for. People were shooting from the hip and they continue to. In all the time since then I’ve tried to explain what I did in Washington, the remarks I made, I can see that their minds are made up. I’m not going to convince them of anything. They’re just mad.

CC: You expected the backlash, so what compelled you to go?

Selders: My purpose in going was to represent the people who I felt had not been well represented, to represent an employer that got a bad shake in this and just to say to our government, `If we’re going to do this, then let’s do it right. Let’s don’t do it in a way that’s so disruptive and causes so much turmoil.’ The plant had another raid in July of this year on a much smaller scale. There was no disruption to operations and only 20 people were targeted. I’m fine with that, I’m fully supportive of that kind of action. I think that reduced scope of action was a direct result of us being in Washington and putting some pressure on the government and saying `OK, ICE, do your thing but be accountable.’ I’d do it again in a heartbeat because it was the right thing to do and it needed to be done.

CC: Were you surprised by the depth of people’s anger over immigration?

Selders: As I look back I guess I didn’t anticipate it, I never would have guessed so many people were so angry about it. And at this juncture I don’t see that people are going to change. I have to be very careful to say it, but the illegal people who are here are still human beings. They deserve at least the dignity of being treated with respect. And I get into arguments with people about that who say, `If they are illegal they have no rights and they shouldn’t even be treated humanely.’ Well I’m sorry, I can’t say that. I can’t agree with that. The people who say that are probably better Christians than I am, but I don’t know what Bible verse they get that out of that you don’t treat these people humanely because they are illegal. We can enforce the laws, we can deport people who need to be deported, but we can do it in a manner that respects their dignity.

CC: What do you think is at the root of that intense anger?

Selders: People are just so convinced that our problems here are a result of (illegal immigrants). That’s absolutely false. Certainly they’re responsible for some of the problem – and what’s that?  Maybe 15 percent? And it’s something we need to be concerned about absolutely. Buck has always said we have to deal with these criminals and I agree. I never took issue with him on that. I’ve praised him for doing a good job at the same time he is belittling me, talking about what a law breaker I am. It’s absolute crap that he keeps saying that kind of thing. But it’s to discredit me, that is his mission in life. He’s accomplished it now. He got rid of me.

CC: You sacrificed your political career for being compassionate; in hindsight was it worth it?

Selders: If I had it to do over again I would have done the same thing, I just wouldn’t have run for a third term. It wasn’t worth the pain and agony of going through a campaign, and it wasn’t worth seeing the hate mail that was sent out by anonymous sources, and it wasn’t worth it hearing my competitor speak lies about me. I should have known at the beginning that my re-election was a near impossibility. If I had come out really strong with my own mailings, trying to explain the Washington thing, maybe I could have come close. …But after reading the district attorney’s slander of me in a number of cases, I don’t know that I ever could have overcome it.

CC: The campaign was framed by the two mailers that cast you as soft on gangs and illegal immigrants – how do you think the mailers impacted the race?

Selders: When they came out I thought they might actually play into my favor. I think some people were so outraged by them they said, `Well we can’t support whoever is responsible for this who must be the opponent of this guy Selders.’ But as we got farther in the campaign I heard there were a lot of people, especially elderly people, who were looking at that and actually believing it. I tried to offset the mailers with positives. We had a 42 percent reduction in gang activity from 2005-2006. I kept trying to get that word out, but people are in the fear mode over the whole immigration thing. They see something and they are just convinced that it must be right and that we really do have all these problems. The people of Greeley tend to react in a real negative fashion about how bad things are. It’s something that’s been real frustrating for me most of my life. It just seems like the nature of the community that we are always going to be mad about things.

CC: Do you think folks with moderate views on immigration are getting lost in the debate?

Selders: I see these (anti-immigrant groups) continuing to have a strong influence because people do seem to respond to that fear. It seems to be the argument that `well, you’re not going to be safe until we fix this, until we get rid of all these problems.’ I’m not very optimistic. The solution has to come from the federal government; it’s a federal issue and Congress has got to do something about it. I’m really disappointed that they’re not going to do anything until sometime in 2009, and then what’s it going to be? Until there is some comprehensive immigration policy and some solutions, I see just more of the same.

CC: Greeley has a long history of assimilating other ethnic groups in the agricultural sector – are the current tensions between Anglos and Latinos just part of the life cycle of a town that needs migrant labor?

Selders: I’ve been in Greeley for about 50 years and there has always been tension. We didn’t used to have an issue about being illegal, you didn’t really hear that word until about 10 years ago. Were there undocumented immigrants here before? I’m sure there always have been, but we never thought about it or we just looked the other way. Have they really assimilated into our culture? Well, I’m not sure they have. There have always been the divisions. There has always been their part of town and their stores and that sort of thing. We need to do a better job of that assimilation.