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 ]