For Colorado immigrants, an extraordinary moment of dread and empowerment

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had to deal with this kind of fear," an attorney says. "But it does feel slightly different now."

Denver's Yessenia Martinez crossed the border illegally 14 years ago. Her husband has been issued a deportation order. “We don’t know if tomorrow ICE is going to come to the door," she said. "We don’t know if they’re going to come for my husband, or for me.” (Photo by Alex Burness)

The good news for Coloradans fearing deportation is that, after the federal government promised Denver would be targeted as part of nationwide raids and mass arrests in major cities, nothing approximating either has taken place.

In fact, since Sunday — the planned first day of an operation reportedly targeting about 2,000 people with outstanding deportation orders nationwide — immigrant rights advocates in Colorado have only confirmed two notable instances of ICE activity.

One happened Monday afternoon on Pecos Street near West 76th Avenue, where, advocates believe, two people were possibly detained. Another incident, in which one person was confirmed to have been detained, took place early Wednesday in a parking lot off Alameda Avenue.

A number of other reports of ICE activity around the state turned out to be false or impossible to confirm. The agency will not comment on specific details of these operations, a spokeswoman said.

But the relative quiet has not brought relief to Colorado’s unauthorized immigrant community, which continues to live largely withdrawn from society in an effort to keep a low profile. They don’t know when or where large-scale arrests could start — if they happen at all.

There are about 180,000 unauthorized immigrants in the state, according to the Pew Research Center. They are often part of mixed-status families, married to or parents and siblings of citizens or lawful permanent residents. It’s not just the unauthorized community that’s on edge; it’s entire families. 

“Some people called me and said this week they aren’t going to work, not going to the grocery store,” said Jeanette Vizguerra, an activist who is herself at risk of deportation, and who is living in sanctuary inside a Denver church.

“They stay in their homes. And they wonder how long this will continue. Maybe one week, two weeks? We don’t know.”

This uncertainty, said Denver’s Yessenia Martinez, “contributes to the fear.” 

“Because we don’t know what day they’ll come, we keep the door closed,” said Martinez, who crossed the border illegally 14 years ago and whose husband, she says, has been issued a final deportation order. They live in Denver with their 7-year-old and have another child on the way.

“I can’t have my son in the yard,” she added. “We have a lawyer, but we don’t know if tomorrow ICE is going to come to the door. We don’t know if they’re going to come for my husband, or for me.”

This fear is common across the state, and not unique to this week. Raids or no raids, the undocumented community generally stays cautious, and this is particularly true of those for whom deportation is an immediate threat. ICE deportation officers carry out what an agency spokeswoman called “targeted enforcement operations” every day. That reality demands vigilance.

One Denver family told The Independent they’ve been using a secret knock at their home for more than a decade, and that they packed an emergency go-bag for one undocumented family member years ago. 

“People are afraid of their own shadow.” — Cristian Solano Córdova

Trump first promised raids in late June but suspended his initial threat. Then the government vowed to take action starting Sunday, and chaos has reigned in Colorado’s affected community.

The Colorado Rapid Response Network, an advocate-run dispatch line to report immigration enforcement activity and to support those at risk of enforcement, has been blowing up.

“It’s every day, hundreds and hundreds of calls,” said Vizguerra, who volunteers to advocate for immigrants, in addition to fighting her own case. 

Some of the calls, according to the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), turn out to be anti-immigrant trolls. 

“The usual,” said CIRC’s Cristian Solano Córdova, reeling off some of the messages: “Go back to your country. You don’t belong here. What don’t you understand about ‘illegal’? You’re sucking the teat dry.”

Many more of the calls come from people who think they saw something, even if nearly all those sightings turn out to be non-threats, he said. People are calling sometimes just to say they saw a car that looks like it could belong to law enforcement.

“They call to say they see different color trucks, white trucks or gray trucks similar to what ICE uses, and that they’re scared,” Vizguerra said. “They call to say that maybe ICE is at Walmart or in the street, in different places.”

Someone called in a threat at an I-25 off-ramp; it turned out to be false. The same thing happened at a store in Brighton, at a health clinic in Denver, at a restaurant in Breckenridge and elsewhere.

“People are afraid of their own shadow,” said Solano Córdova.

Immigrant rights advocates say there is a silver lining in these few weeks of heightened fear: affected people and allies alike are turning out in droves to support and to spread know-your-rights information. The Rapid Response Network’s Facebook page has gone from about 2,000 followers to nearly 8,000 (as of this writing) in two weeks, and Solano Córdova said CIRC’s training events have been packed.

That people had three weeks to prepare after Trump’s initial June threat of raids has also offered plenty of lead time to rehearse doomsday scenarios and to memorize recommended phrases in the event ICE shows up at one’s workplace or front door.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had to deal with this kind of fear under the (Trump) administration, but it does feel slightly different now, in that people are a lot more aware of their rights,” said Astrid Lockwood, a national immigration attorney. “This go-round, the immigrant advocates, the lawyers, the nonprofits — we have done a really good job in educating. I’ve never seen that before, where people are so aware of the tools they have to protect their families.”

For many, simply cowering indoors is not an option. Undocumented people, like anyone else, have jobs to get to and errands to run.

“I had one guy that said his wife told him he shouldn’t drive,” Lockwood said. “But he told me, ‘Who else is gonna pick up the kids? Who else is gonna take my wife to the doctor? Who else will do it if I don’t?’ … There is no other option.”

The anxiety never goes away. But, Vizguerra said, the problem is that no one knows how long this extraordinarily tense time will last.

“This isn’t forever,” she said. “Everything will be ok.”

But she conceded that may be wishful thinking.

Alex covers state and local politics with a focus on criminal justice and immigration. He is a D.C. native who's lived in Illinois, Chile and now Denver. You can reach him by email at alex@coloradoindependent.com or on Twitter at @alex_burness.

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