With an immigrant-integration grant from The Colorado Trust, the Realizing Our Community initiative in Greeley faces an uphill battle against residents and officials who suspect the group of advocating for illegal immigrants.On the same evening in September when 500 people gathered to discuss the impact of illegal immigration on crime in Greeley, a smaller group attended an educational forum on ways to bring this sharply polarized community back together.
The media attention paid to Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck’s controversial meeting nearly eclipsed the other forum, organized by Realizing Our Community, a group with a four-year, $300,000 immigrant-integration grant from The Colorado Trust, a private foundation.
The scheduling conflict was read by some as an attempt by Buck and others to undermine the efforts of ROC, which is gearing up to implement plans aimed at making Greeley a more welcoming community for the town’s increasingly diverse residents. Buck says the conflict was unintentional and he regrets the fact the meetings overlapped.
But in Greeley, where anger over illegal immigration is red hot and cultural divisions run deep, the plans for immigrant integration have inevitably encountered strong opposition. The ROC effort sparked indignation early on after a committee member floated the idea of an apology from European-descended residents to Latinos for historical injustices. The idea, which coordinators say was immediately rejected, circulated widely in an e-mail and prompted the Board of Weld County Commissioners to withdraw their support from the ROC effort.
In the wake of the white apology gaff, many residents are suspicious of ROC, and some regard the group as an advocate for illegal immigrants although the terms of the grant prohibit the funds to be used in service of the undocumented. Some city officials have expressed doubt that the ROC committee represents the diversity of opinion in Greeley. They cite the fact that many of the outspoken members of ROC are also prominent supporters of more lenient immigration reform, which many in Greeley oppose.
“There is no way we can deal with (illegal immigration) or change the situation. It’s a government problem,” said Joe Tennessen, co-chair of ROC. “I’m not sure how that will ever be resolved. The first decision made by this group is that is not where we are going. What we are trying to do instead is figure out how we can get along with each other a bit better.”
ROC members are currently seeking board members and an integration coordinator to begin work in 2008. Tennessen says specific plans to integrate immigrants are still being hammered out, but the group has identified six areas of focus including civic participation, culturally-sensitive healthcare, education, community relations and English-language learning.
“At some point there will be more specific goals, but we purposely kept them broad” to give the new board and director freedom to refine the program’s focus, said Tennessen. “I don’t know of anyone in the group that thinks this will be easy, but if we can do something to alleviate the friction in the community, it will have a positive impact.”
Buck says much of the opposition to ROC stems from the group’s refusal to differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants, a distinction that matters deeply to many Greeley residents.
“Anything that comes out of this group has to be accepted by a majority of our population,” Buck said. “We should welcome legal immigrants, but illegal immigration is a different issue. As long as this group doesn’t distinguish between the two, I think it’s going to be hard to achieve their goal.”
Although Buck says he wholeheartedly supports the ROC goal to integrate (legal) newcomers into Greeley, he says he is waiting to see if the ROC board will be representative of the town’s social and political diversity.
“I won’t support ROC until I know more about it and see what direction it is going,” Buck said.
Greeley’s new mayor, Ed Clark, shares Buck’s concern that the group will lack legitimacy unless it draws the line clearly between legal and illegal immigrants and can attract some of the town’s more conservative residents.
One such Greeley resident, Joy Breuer, was on the ROC planning committee until recently. She resigned because she says the efforts of ROC will attract more illegal immigrants to the area.
“We’ve got to stop this illegal stuff,” Breuer said. “So why would you help a group that wants to encourage more illegals to come in?”
The criticism of ROC, is exasperating for some in Greeley, who fear the hate and anger over illegal immigration will forever split this town of 90,000.
“ROC contains the members it contains because these are people that instead of just inflaming the issue, are actually willing to step up and do something about it,” said Sylvia Martinez, member of ROC and chair of the advocacy group Latinos Unidos. “It’s easy to criticize something that is trying to be positive when you aren’t willing to be part of the solution.”
Former Greeley Mayor Tom Selders, who attended several ROC meetings during the yearlong planning phase, agrees ROC may lack balance between left-leaning Democrats and conservative Republicans, who predominate in Weld County. But Selders maintains the community integration agenda of ROC is sorely needed in Greeley, and he shares the aggravation Martinez feels at the lack of support for the group’s efforts.
“I suppose the solution for a lot of people is mass deportation and anything at all that says, `Let’s try to get along,’ they don’t want any part of, and that’s what is really frustrating,” Selders said. “People are just looking for ways to oppose ROC. … They are going to find a way to be mad about this.”
Don Coloroso, a member of ROC, says the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants is hardly clear cut – many families are mixed status, meaning some members are legal residents and others are undocumented.
“People are people although we label them certain things,” said Coloroso. “In this case we define people as legal or illegal. That’s a barrier to ROC, and it seems the biggest challenge is to get away from these labels and get people to accept others for their inherent dignity and worth.”
The Colorado Trust created the immigrant integration grant in response to rapid demographic change across the state, the likes of which have caused sharp tensions to build up in Greeley, said Susan Downs-Karkos, senior program director. In no way was the initiative meant to address the issue of illegal immigration, she added.
“We have people from all over the world coming to live in our state, and there isn’t always a lot being done proactively to integrate these people into the community,” Downs-Karkos said. “This initiative is about building strong, healthy and vibrant communities for everyone, so that’s why we look at immigrant integration.”
But in Greeley, where discussion of immigrant integration inevitably evokes the boiling anger over illegal immigration, it remains to be seen whether Realizing Our Community can overcome a rocky start and build the necessary local support for their efforts to succeed.
“I know this community, and I am so concerned about the way negativism and fear seem to prevail,” said Selders. “I’ve seen this town be successful in other areas so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But I’m not as optimistic as I wish I could be.”