‘They need to be in our shoes to understand us’
It’s dinnertime at the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park in Basalt on a weeknight. A few people hang out on porches, dabble in conversation and enjoy the shade on a warm evening. The alluring smell of cooking meat and spices drifts out of a few residences. Workers filter in after a long day on the job.
Ismael Martinez is among the late arrivals in the neighborhood. The 2011 graduate of Basalt High School is still wearing work clothes and a layer of dirt from a hard day on the job at a Denver construction site. His crew knocked off for the week for the Fourth of July holiday. He and his brother Fabian hop out of the car and immediately are surrounded by family and friends eager to welcome them home.
Life is sweet for Ismael. He’s working on an internship while pursuing his degree in construction management at Colorado State University. He worked hard and earned a scholarship. He will start his third year at Fort Collins in the fall.
It’s evident that his dad, Felipe, is proud of both Ismael and Fabian, who will attend CSU as a freshman this year.
“They’re smart and stayed out of trouble,” Felipe said through an interpreter.
American Dream with a twist
The Martinez family is living the American dream — except with a twist. Ismael, a U.S. citizen, is thrilled about his opportunities, but he’s concerned about his family and many of his friends. He has seen families separated, with some unable to enter the U.S. In other cases, kids who grew up in Basalt have a tough time pursuing higher education because they lived for a year or two in Mexico and aren’t U.S. citizens. And in other cases, people who have worked hard to put their kids through college are at risk of being removed from the country.
It remains uncertain if anyone in those categories will get a chance to pursue a clearer path to citizenship than exists now.
“I just think it’s taken too long,” Ismael said of immigration reform.
He is especially concerned about schoolmates who came to “this great country” at an early age and are living in the only place they know as home.
“Now when they want to continue to expand their education horizons, they can’t because they aren’t considered citizens even though they have lived more than 80 percent of their lives here,” Ismael said. “I believe no one has the right to destroy someone else’s future.”
He wants to see reform make it easier for undocumented students to become residents so they can pursue higher education — even if they must pay “ridiculous” interest rates on student loans.
Martinez is taking a wait-and-see approach to immigration reform.
“Even though it was a good victory the other day, I don’t see it coming” through with a vote in the House, he said.
Key issue in election
His dad, Felipe, is more optimistic.
“It’s already passed the first step, and we’re waiting on the hard one,” he said. Felipe knows some politicians are trying to alter the proposal, but he’s optimistic about passage, he said, because Democrats are pushing for approval.
He warned that the issue would be key in the next elections. Immigration will weigh heavily with Hispanics who can vote, he said.
Felipe is a ranch worker, and he previously worked construction. He has lived in Basalt for half of the roughly 30 years he has been in the U.S.
Felipe doesn’t feel he’s stealing anyone’s job. The vast majority of Hispanics he knows simply want to work hard and create a better situation for their families.
“I’m just doing the hard work,” he said.
He makes it a point to dispute the contention of some immigration opponents that Hispanics and other immigrants just want to become citizens to collect benefits. No one he knows wants to become a citizen to get handouts.
“In a few words, they need to be in our shoes to understand us,” Martinez said.
During a two-hour tour of the Pan and Fork with an interpreter, it’s evident that nearly all residents interviewed are well aware that Congress is debating immigration reform. There’s universal hope that legislation passes and provides a way for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally to gain amnesty and an opportunity at citizenship. However, most of the eight people interviewed by The Aspen Times expressed doubt that the immigration-reform bill that passed the Senate will survive intact in the House.
“I know it will be harder,” said Luisa, a housekeeper who has been in the U.S. for 22 years. She is raising two teenage boys in Basalt. Her husband is stuck in Mexico, she said.
“He tried to cross the border, but every time they catch him,” she said. So Luisa is raising their sons on her own. It’s difficult, she said, and one of the boys has become “aggressive.” She thinks it’s because of the absence of his dad. Nevertheless, she said she loves Basalt. It’s a safe place, she said.
If immigration reform is passed, Louisa said it will be expensive to obtain citizenship. She said she is saving her money to get through the process.
Slow path to citizenship
Not everyone who is waiting for reform is in the country illegally. Irma Diaz said she has her green card and has applied for citizenship but has waited for years to make it through the process. She wants to see a quicker path to citizenship established by the new legislation. She also wants people who have been in the U.S. and in the process for a long time to get considered first for citizenship.
Diaz said the Spanish-language television stations in the U.S. have covered the immigration-reform debate thoroughly. She watches several channels to get a complete picture because, she said, they are fighting for ratings and using coverage to try to draw viewers.
She believes it is “ridiculous” that some U.S. politicians are pushing so hard to increase border security before they make it easier for people to pursue citizenship. The U.S. government is concerned that hordes of citizens from Mexico will cross the border to beat the deadline for applying for citizenship. Diaz said the concern is unrealistic, in large part because it is already so difficult to cross the border. She said she goes through three checkpoints when crossing to visit family in Tijuana.
She also said the fear of people crossing the border if amnesty is offered doesn’t make sense because they won’t be able to prove they have been in the country. They won’t qualify to pursue citizenship, she said.
Felipe Martinez said he has crossed the border twice in his lifetime: once at Tijuana and once across a river into Texas. He understands the concern that amnesty will lead to more people coming across the border. That happened in 1986, he said. But it is much tougher now to cross, he said. Even so, he expects border security to be beefed up.
“This time they’ll put a fence around the border. It will be just like Germany,” he said in an apparent reference to the former wall that divided East and West Berlin.
Some of the people interviewed said the U.S. government should focus on preventing drugs and people who have been convicted of felonies from crossing the border. A woman who didn’t want to be identified expressed concern about the Mexican drug cartels and the problems they are creating.
“I don’t want to go back there because of the violence,” she said. “I don’t want that for my kids.”
She also said immigration reform shouldn’t be viewed solely as an issue for Mexicans who are in the U.S. She has friends in the Roaring Fork Valley from Nepal, Estonia and several other countries. All are eager for immigration reform.
“We are from everywhere,” she said.
Waiting and praying
Some Pan and Fork residents who were interviewed are taking an active role in the immigration debate. Some are helping the Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition. Anahi Araiza, a 2012 graduate of Basalt High School and a current student at Colorado Mountain College, is lobbying on immigration reform through the Roaring Fork Valley chapter of Ajua, the Association of Youths United in Action. She recently attended a town hall-style meeting held by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, in Glenwood Springs. Immigration was one of the topics raised. Tipton, whose district includes the Roaring Fork Valley, was noncommittal on how he will vote.
“I think he really needs a big push,” Araiza said.
She supports the bill passed by the Senate because it allows people to stay in the country legally and creates a pathway to citizenship.
“Of course there are some flaws,” she said. “We need to think of the majority.”
One man at the Pan and Fork summed the situation up well for nearly everyone interviewed. He was sitting on his porch with a woman when approached by a reporter and interpreter. He said he has been following the discussion on Spanish-language television. He said he hopes the debate in Congress is genuine.
“I hope they aren’t trying to trick us and in the end it’s going to be false,” he said.
After a lengthy chat with the interpreter, she summed up his comment as, “Their hopes are in God that there’s going to be action.”
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Carrie Besnette Hauser considers her position as president of Colorado Mountain College to be a dream job.