Valley of fear
Four-year-old Miguel has an evening routine: He stares out his window across southern Colorado’s painfully flat San Luis Valley, waiting for his father, Roberto, to return from work at the Worley & McCullough potato processing plant near the town of Center. But on the evening of April 17, the routine was broken when Roberto didn’t come home. That morning, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided the plant and arrested him and 17 of his co-workers. Roberto was taken to a jail in Denver, more than 200 miles away. He didn’t see his family again for 10 days.At first, Elena (the family asked that their real names not be used), told their three children that their father was just working longer hours, coming home after the children were in bed and leaving before they woke up. But after a few days, 6-year-old Alex overheard his mother crying on the phone – something about his father being in a jail in Denver.Rather than trying to explain things like immigration and why people from something called “ICE” took his father away, Elena tried to convince her oldest child that he had misunderstood.”Daddy is in Denver working with his cousin, not in jail,” she assured him again and again. She even called the school and asked Alex’s teachers to corroborate her story.After 10 days, Roberto finally returned home. To the children, it seemed the family’s nightmare was over. But just a few days later, a letter came in the mail, ordering him to report to an immigration office in Alamosa, the bureaucratic hub for this vast agricultural valley. Roberto didn’t come home that night, either.For two more weeks, Elena made up stories about the jobs he was doing with his cousin in Denver and the new car that he would be bringing home any day now. Alex seemed satisfied, and the stories helped Elena disguise the fear that had taken over her own life.The San Luis Valley bust was just one in a string of increasingly regular raids across the country. In December, ICE agents converged on six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in multiple states simultaneously, hauling away hundreds of workers. This summer, agents continued to ratchet up the pressure, netting 14 arrests in a raid on a U.S. Forest Service contractor in Idaho and more than 100 additional suspected illegal immigrants at an Oregon food processing plant.
Each raid tightens the grip of fear among immigrants living in the United States, sending tremors through their communities. Meanwhile, states have passed strict new immigration laws that exacerbate the anxiety. Yet evidence suggests that the raids have done little to curb undocumented immigration. Meanwhile, by further ostracizing “illegals,” the raids may actually worsen the problems associated with undocumented immigration and hamper assimilation for generations to come.”This is a little bit of theater. It’s not unlike taking off our shoes at the airport,” says Tomás Jimenéz, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. “Like it or not, a lot of these people have children who are born in the United States that are American citizens, and their children will grow up here and stay here. If many of the children of these immigrants start out having their parents labeled illegal … it can have a ripple effect on assimilation well into the future, and that’s not good for the United States.”Roberto immigrated to Colorado from Mexico 13 years ago and has lived and worked illegally in the valley’s mushroom farms and potato facilities ever since, using a fake social security number. Elena followed him here, and all three of their children were born in Colorado as American citizens.Since the San Luis Valley raid, Roberto has spent more than three weeks in detention centers, constantly living under the threat of deportation. During that time, federal marshals convinced him to testify against his former employer. He must stay in the state, and he can’t work or drive while he waits to testify, which could be several months or longer. In the meantime, Elena says, there is mostly just fear.”Everyone’s afraid now. People are panicking, and lots of people are afraid to leave their houses. I haven’t gone to the grocery store in a month, I’ve been so scared of getting picked up.”That anxiety has been widespread among all the valley’s immigrant workers, not just the families of those arrested in the raid. Immediately after the news broke that ICE was in town, a tidal wave of rumors flooded the tiny communities and the 8,000 acres of farm and ranch land on the valley floor.”The next day, a text message went around that there would be a raid at the school,” recalls George Welsh, superintendent of the Center Consolidated School District. He estimates that about 20 percent of the district’s students come from homes where at least one family member is here illegally. “We had to send around another message saying, ‘The school is the safest place for your kids to be …’ but some families disappeared with their kids and still haven’t come back.”Welsh says before the raid, he was preparing next year’s budget for the district based on an anticipated student population of 580, but has since revised that projection down to 525 students and may be forced to eliminate a number of teaching jobs as a result.It’s become increasingly difficult to get the word out on what people’s rights are, says Welsh. Rumors spread that ICE might be staging meetings to net additional arrests. Welsh responded with e-mails assuring parents that meetings organized by the San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center were valid. The assurances were met with more rumors that ICE may be staking out the meetings or the Resource Center office itself.”Now we have to take into consideration where people feel safe for meetings,” says Sara Spring, an advocate with the Center. “We use a lot of churches, but a lot of people are still really scared to drive anywhere.”A new law requiring Colorado police to report suspected illegal immigrants whom they arrest has added the fear that a routine traffic stop could lead to deportation. In response, many illegal immigrants leave the house only when absolutely necessary. But now, some refuse to risk being discovered even for the most urgent of circumstances, according to Francisco Lucas, a Guatemalan immigrant and local leader in the immigrant community.
“Now if there is an accident or case of domestic violence, people don’t report it,” says Lucas. “There could be kids involved who are citizens, but they’re not getting help. Parents are scared to take sick kids to the hospital because they might ask for a social security number.”Approximately 29 percent of all agricultural workers in the nation are undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. So when ICE arrests dozens of immigrants, the effect is felt.”When it first happened, there was definitely a reaction. Some workers just didn’t show up,” says Don Shawcroft, vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, who also runs a family ranch outside La Jara. Most workers soon returned, but he says the raid raised the anxieties of farmers and ranchers who are caught between trying to obey the law and finding enough workers to get their crops in.Shawcroft says he’s concerned about finding enough labor, but he also sees a “justified concern about who is coming in to this country,” and he sees the raids as an effective form of border security. At first glance, the statistics seem to support this: During the first quarter of 2007, after the ICE enforcement was visibly stepped up, apprehensions of illegal immigrants were down by 31 percent from the previous year. “Raids put the scare in ’em,” Shawcroft says. “Bad news travels back to Mexico or Guatemala and slows it down for a time.”But Pia Orrenius, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, suggests otherwise. The economy’s health, she says, has a much greater influence over immigration than enforcement. If the economy’s good and jobs are plentiful, immigrants will figure out a way around the fences, raids and deadly desert along the border; if it’s bad, they’ll stay home.Indeed, even as apprehensions – an indicator of how many people are illegally crossing the border – fell, construction also dropped off in the U.S. thanks to a housing slump. According to Jim Haughey, chief economist with Reed Construction Data, construction jobs, which are the most desirable and lucrative for new immigrants, have declined since last fall, and as many as 100,000 jobs could disappear by late 2007.”I saw this happening [a drop in border apprehensions] a year ago and I knew that about a year later, after we saw a slowdown in arrests, we’d see a slow down in the economy, and of course that’s exactly what we have seen,” says Dawn McLaren, a research economist from Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business who has studied the relationship between immigration and the economy. “It’s not that immigrants cause the economy to do well or poorly, it’s just that they’re reacting specifically to the job market.”Some immigrants have fled the valley in fear following the raids, but for Roberto and Elena and most others, the economic incentives and promise of better opportunities for their children are worth all the risks, even if it means more time in detention.”We’re just trying to maintain our faith and thinking about the children,” says Elena. “All we think about is finding a way for them to grow up bilingual here. Going to Mexico would be very difficult for them now.”They now support their family by putting their trust in the Immigrant Resource Center, which has provided food, diapers, rent and utility assistance while Roberto waits to testify. Friends and extended family are also helping out.
The couple is anxiously watching the debate over immigration legislation in hopes that a new immigration law may offer a path to citizenship, or at least a longer stay. Right now, the odds seem stacked against the family. Roberto’s status could be in limbo for years. He has no way to apply for citizenship because he has no family in the country legally. Elena applied for legal status through her brother six years ago, but with the current backlog of cases, she may have to wait another eight years.In the meantime, they’ll continue to live in fear, and like so many other families that have come here for a better life, huddle a little bit further into the shadows.The author is a writer and radio producer based in Taos, N.M. This article originally appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org), which covers the West’s communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.