This story is the first in a series that examines a community grappling with uncertainties around immigration in one of Colorado’s poorest rural counties.
Before the sun rises over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Lucia Gaspar’s home in Alamosa, Colorado, she is making pancakes for her kids: Erick, 9, Alexandra, 8, and Anna, 7. By 7 a.m., all three are eating while Gaspar bustles around the kitchen, cleaning dishes as fast as she can so she can join her children briefly at the table before the school rush.
“The pancakes didn’t turn out quite the way I was hoping,” she confesses. Still, Gaspar appreciates these moments; even an imperfect breakfast is better than not being here at all.
Afterwards, the kids scamper around the house gathering up what they need for school. By 7:30, Gaspar, who has long glossy hair and a beaming smile, is shepherding them into the van, while the frenzy of the morning rush dissipates in the crisp winter air. Tires crunch in the gravel driveway, and she feels a surge of relief that, at least outwardly, the life she has built for herself and her family remains intact.
Gaspar was 8 years old and undocumented when she, her single mother and four siblings moved to Alamosa. They came from Santa Eulalia, a small Indigenous Mayan village in western Guatemala, hoping to reunite with family members who had previously settled in Alamosa, seeking asylum from the Guatemalan Civil War. That war started in 1960 and lasted 36 years, during which the U.S.-trained Guatemalan military massacred thousands of Mayan people. Many others were forced to flee.
Growing up, Gaspar spent summers working in the fields around Alamosa, picking spinach, potatoes and mushrooms. After graduating, she wanted to apply to college. Without a Social Security number, however, she couldn’t qualify for financial aid, so she resigned herself to one of the only options available: a job at a mushroom farm, where she sometimes put in 12- or 13-hour days.
Though Gaspar had spent 19 of her 27 years in Alamosa, she often felt lost without a legal status, as if her own life was outside her control. “When you don’t have any documentation, you’re in the shadows,” she told me. “You don’t know if you’re going to be OK or not.”
Like the time in 2007, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, raided a potato processing plant near Alamosa. News of the arrests spread throughout the San Luis Valley, prompting Gaspar’s mother to quickly move the family into an aunt’s apartment, in case ICE agents came looking for them. Gaspar told me that, even back then, “I knew what could happen.”
Five years after the raid, Gaspar’s life changed again. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program to help Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, get a reprieve from deportation. The program did not offer a path to citizenship or even legal permanent residency, but it did allow Dreamers who had no criminal record and met certain other requirements to obtain valid driver’s licenses, enroll in college, and get work permits.
Gaspar applied in 2012 and was accepted, enabling her to get her current job, helping developmentally challenged students in the special-needs classroom of Alamosa’s Middle School. Christie Sederquist, the special education teacher, said that Lucia has been “a huge asset” to the class, finding the balance between pushing the kids to be more independent and helping them when something is beyond their abilities.
“It’s difficult to find paraprofessionals that have the right mentality to work with these kids,” Sederquist told me.
Last September, President Donald Trump announced that he would end DACA by March 5, 2018, and ordered Congress to come up with a long-term legislative solution. In February, three immigration reform bills that dealt with the fate of Dreamers were introduced, but Congress failed to pass any of them.
When Gaspar watched the news on television, she wondered how the lawmakers could be so indifferent to the emotional toll their inaction caused — the way it forced people to live in a state of perpetual uncertainty. “Why don’t you realize how much you are hurting families?” she wanted to ask them.
The obsessive political debates over who was “legal” and “illegal” ignore the fact that in the San Luis Valley, immigrants — both documented and undocumented — have been part of the community for decades, with jobs, and homes, and kids who are U.S. citizens. About 10,000 of the valley’s 50,000 people are migrant and seasonal workers, though it’s impossible to know how many are authorized versus unauthorized. In Colorado, undocumented immigrants make up around 5 percent of the workforce — 140,000 in total — and contribute millions in state and local taxes.
Meanwhile, the White House’s increasingly hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric has had a powerful impact. The local San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center is now flooded with calls from confused and frightened people, like the man who said he was worried he would lose his residency and get deported for receiving Medicaid. Another man, who’s in the process of getting his GED, keeps phoning the center to find out if he’ll still be eligible for DACA.
“He calls me at least once a month,” Flora Archuleta, the center’s director, told me. That’s on top of the five to 10 other calls she gets every day from people wondering about DACA.
Archuleta’s office is located near Alamosa’s main street. She now spends much of her day just talking to people, trying to comfort them and give advice without really knowing the answers herself.
A month after the 2016 election, Gaspar reached out to Archuleta seeking help, too. She wanted her brother, a U.S. citizen, to have power of attorney and guardianship for Erick, Alexandra and Anna in the event that she and Javier, her partner and the kids’ father, were deported. In the past year, Archuleta told me, she’d processed power of attorney requests sparingly — roughly 10 per year. Since the election, that number has more than doubled, as undocumented parents grow increasingly anxious that their children could end up in U.S. foster care if they are taken away by ICE.
Before DACA, Gaspar often thought about relocating to a city, where she and Javier could find better-paying work. Alamosa County is one of the poorest in Colorado; more than a third of its people live in poverty, and many young people move away in search of better wages.
But with the new job that DACA enabled her to get, Gaspar was able to save enough for a down payment on a small house, and envision a future for herself and her family on a quiet street near the Rio Grande.
Their three-bedroom home is painted light blue, with a fenced backyard holding the kids’ bicycles and a trampoline. Inside, the rooms are spacious and clean; the kids’ beds are neatly made, and on the living room wall hang portraits of Lucia and Javier, taken just after they started dating. When they moved in, Gaspar saw the house as a safe place for her children, free from the kind of anxiety she knew as a child.
And yet, lately, the kids’ fear is palpable. “What if the police take Dad?” Erick asked Gaspar a little while ago. “I don’t want Dad to go to jail.”
Javier is also undocumented, but unlike Gaspar, he did not qualify for DACA because he never finished high school, arriving alone from Mexico as a 14-year-old looking for work. Before Trump, ICE had a mandate to arrest undocumented immigrants with serious criminal convictions rather than those with clean histories, minor offenses, or longstanding ties to the country. But now, Lucia worries that Javier might be taken away to some faraway detention center, leaving her a single parent and her kids fatherless.
That possibility is too much for her kids to bear, so Gaspar tells them not to worry, that God will make everything OK. In the meantime, she helps them with their homework and volunteers in their classrooms, trying not to think about all she could lose.
Before I left Alamosa, we walked on the trail behind Gaspar’s house, bordering the Rio Grande — reminding her of the journey she took as a child almost two decades ago with her mother and siblings across this same river, hundreds of miles south of here, from a country she barely remembers. Gaspar’s DACA status expires next year, and the prospect of being sent back to Guatemala, away from everything she knows, and from her children’s future, is unimaginable. Alamosa is their home.
“I’m from here, I grew up here,” she told me. “I feel like I belong here.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
Top image: Lucia Gaspar stands outside on the back porch of her house in Alamosa with her three kids, Erick, Anna, and Alexandra (holding Chiquis, their pet Chihuahua). In rural areas, 22 percent of DACA recipients, like Gaspar, were able to buy a house for the first time in their communities after being approved for the program. (Sarah Tory)