Latino activists at DNC renew call for immigration reform

An immigration reform rally plackard reads 'Our voice is our vote, we are the political force.' (Photo/Erin Rosa)
An immigration reform rally plackard reads 'Our voice is our vote, we are the political force.' (Photo/Erin Rosa)

On May Day in 2006, a human mass of white shirts stretched along downtown Denver’s Speer Boulevard in one of the largest mobilizations in the city’s history. An estimated 75,000 people skipped work and school to march and protest against federal legislation that would have further criminalized undocumented immigrants in the United States. Millions of others rallied in more than 25 cities.

Two years later during the Democratic National Convention, another group, estimated at 1,000, again took to the streets in Denver, demanding that immigration reform — hardly a front and center issue so far this year — isn’t forgotten when a new president takes office in January. But the event was marred with the somber memory of the past two years since the colossal May Day actions — during which immigrants in Colorado have witnessed a crackdown on the undocumented, a massive expansion of an immigrant prison, and a surge in raids and prosecutions by federal authorities.

In a state where the immigration issue directly affects the Mexican community, local activists are speaking out against what has become an increasingly hostile environment to both immigrants and those of Latino origin. Federal immigration reform is not only seen as an urgent step toward protecting undocumented families and workers in the United States but is also considered to be one of the surest ways to end a disastrous immigration legacy in Colorado.

Many who helped organize the May Day march in 2006 also took part in planning the most recent immigrant rights rally during the convention, which began at Denver’s Rude Park across from Mile High Stadium on the the last day of the convention, Aug. 28, a day that marked the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Nita Gonzales, daughter of late Chicano activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and president of La Escuela Tlatelolco, a community-based private school with an emphasis on Chicano and Mexican culture, helped lead the rally, where people marched a short distance on Interstate 25 from Rude Park to Lincoln Park at Mariposa Street and West 11th Avenue.

“It’s worth the struggle,” said Gonzales, who donned a T-shirt with an image of her father, a Denver native and figurehead of the Chicano movement in the 1960s and 1970s. “I understand that immigration raids put a chill on people’s ability to stand up and have a voice, but that’s what we have to do. We’re the citizens, we have to walk our talk and get up and do it and march.”

Asked about parallels between her father’s community organizing work in Colorado and the struggles that are currently faced by immigrants now in the state, Gonzales said, “I think the energy in the 1960s and 1970s was amazing, for several groups and organizations including those in the Chicano movement. We were under so much oppression then because we dared to speak up, and I truly believe that there is fear now. People are fearful.”

Gonzales was quick to add that “We can’t tolerate that. We have to stand up.”

In May, Gonzales became a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado against Denver officials and the United States Secret Service to disclose plans relating to parade routes and rally permits during the convention. At a press conference announcing the litigation, Gonzales stated that she had submitted a request for a parade permit in March and had yet to hear back from the city about where a parade would be permitted, how the parade permitting process would would work, or if she would even be granted a permit to hold a immigrant rights march while media and Democrats were in Denver for the convention.

Immigration reform backers at the DNC begin their march from Rude Park. (Photo/Erin Rosa)
Immigration reform backers at the DNC begin their march from Rude Park. (Photo/Erin Rosa)
The city’s convention planners didn’t release a designated parade route for the convention until mid-June, and even then, the route didn’t have an end point. The city of St. Paul, Minn., in contrast, released a complete planned parade route for the Republican National Convention, which kicked off this week, nearly a month earlier. Even more concerning to Denver activists — parades would only be permitted between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m, before daily convention business started, and when the decision was made to move Barack Obama’s acceptance speech to Mile High Stadium, a parade route to that location wasn’t announced until less than a month before the start of the convention, leaving organizers of the immigrant rights rally scrambling.

A Denver district judge later dismissed the ACLU lawsuit in early August, finding that federal and local convention planners were justified in waiting to release specific information relating to parades and protests at the convention because of national security concerns.

Colorado’s new immigrant dragnet
In the two years since the massive May Day marches, Colorado has turned into a state with some of the toughest immigration laws in the nation, largely due to a special legislative session that was called to address undocumented immigration in the summer of 2006 by Republican then-Gov. Bill Owens and the Democratic leadership in the state legislature.

The result of the emergency session was a package of new laws, which have since been criticized for evicting legal residents, contributing to racial profiling of Latinos and creating fear in immigrant communities.

In just one example, Francisco “Kiko” Trincado, a legal resident from Chile, was forced to leave his Aspen home in 2007 because his identification papers from the federal government hadn’t yet arrived in the mail. A new state regulation required that he have a state driver’s license or ID card in order to live in subsidized housing or receive public services.

Last year, the same law nearly resulted in students at Colorado public colleges and universities being denied the ability to receive in-state tuition because their parents were undocumented. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers later decided that such students were legally able to receive in-state tuition.

The tumultuous regulation was later reported to have cost more than $2 million in tax dollars to enforce, saving the state nothing, according to Colorado agencies.

“Part of the problem is that there’s been no federal comprehensive immigration policy,” said Ramon del Castillo, a Chicano studies professor at Metro State College of Denver, who helped support the immigrant rights rally last week. “As a result states have taken it upon themselves to shape at times various laws that are really oppressive. It’s a broken system. There’s no federal guidelines.”

Another new law passed during the 2006 special session requires that members of local law enforcement contact federal immigration authorities if there is “probable cause” that someone may be undocumented; yet another requires employers to document the legal status of newly hired employees, leading to claims of discrimination from citizens with Latino backgrounds and confusion for business owners who find conflicts with existing federal regulations.

“There’s no question that immigration policy has been a part of Chicano studies,” Castillo said. “We understand the push and pull factors of immigration policy. They’re the economic needs of American society and industrialism. When cheap labor is needed generally public polices are shaped to invite the Mexicano in to do the work, and then after they’re finished you get other public policies that deport them.”

The news laws in Colorado have encouraged an unknown number of immigrant workers to flee the state. After various crops were left to spoil in the harvest season following the special session, farms in Colorado partnered with the state’s Department of Corrections to pay inmates 60 cents a day to work in the fields.

Some say that the tough new laws were a culmination of several factors — including 2006 being an election year, public sentiment opposed to illegal immigration, Republican operatives using the issue as a wedge issue — and Democrats going along with efforts to clamp down on undocumented workers.

“Both chambers controlled by Democrats passed legislation in the state level that has been very devastating for immigrants and low income folks and other marginalized populations, so we think it is really critical to focus on the national and the local,” said Gabriela Flora, an organizer with the state chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that also helped to plan last week’s immigration rally.

Despite numerous complaints from immigrant rights advocates, since then little has been done to address the myriad problems that have surfaced since the special session laws were passed.

Feds step up enforcement actions
Since 2006, workplace raids by federal immigration authorities have dramatically increased in the United States, according to available government data, creating both tension and fear in Colorado’s immigrant community.

Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials reported approximately 1,300 worksite arrests in 2005, but the number jumped to more than 4,380 worksite arrests in 2006, more than seven times greater than the total number of individuals arrested in worksite enforcement in 2002. In a continuation of the trend, workplace arrests increased to more than 4,900 in 2007.

The first hint of of the surge to mark Colorado occurred on Dec. 12, 2006, in the northern city of Greeley, when ICE agents raided the national headquarters of the Swift & Company meatpacking plant as part of a operation that netted more than 1,200 arrests from plants in six separate states. The raid came seven months after the May Day marches, and on Our Lady of Guadalupe day, one of the most holiest days in Mexican culture. In Greeley, 261 people were arrested by ICE while immigration attorneys in the area later denounced federal agents for failing to provide information about the location of arrestees and not letting attorneys meet with those who were detained.

Less than three months later, ICE struck again, raiding janitorial crews working at the ESPN Zone restaurant in downtown Denver, along with the two Dave and Busters restaurant locations in the metro area, arresting 12. The coordinated operation resulted in 193 total arrests that took part in early morning hours at 63 entertainment-eateries in 18 states.

Most recently, in July ICE agents raided a concrete plant in northern Colorado near the city of Loveland, arresting 18 men.

Along with a surge in worksite raids and arrests is an increase in criminal prosecutions against immigrants. Right after the raid against the concrete workers, the Transactional Records Access Clearing house, an organization at Syracuse University that compiles government data, released numbers showing that immigration cases made up 58 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions in April alone, while prosecutions against immigrants increased by 72 percent in a year nationwide.

A privately run ICE prison in the Denver metropolitan area with 400 beds is also expected to nearly quadruple in size by an addition of 1,100 beds. Corrections firm the GEO Group, a global company that manages the prison, is supporting the expansion with an estimated annual income of $30 million, although ICE has yet to indicate that it will use the space.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at

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