Aspen Princess: Immigration issues in the valley are about the future
August 29, 2018
There's this weird Murphy's Law with writing when every time I write a story that I'm sure is going to make a big splash, all I get are crickets. On the flip side, when I think something is so bad that I'm embarrassed to have it published, I get the biggest response.
A few months ago, I poured my heart (and several weeks of work) into "Chasing Shadows," a feature story for Aspen Sojourner in conjunction with Aspen Journalism about the undocumented immigrants who sustain Aspen's workforce. We wanted to examine how their lives have been impacted by the Trump administration and its hardline "zero tolerance" policy on immigration and also look at the hiring practices of local businesses and try to better understand this shadow economy and to consider whether it could be brought into the light. As I was writing the piece, headlines were breaking daily about migrant children who were being separated from their parents at the border. It was a horrifying reality that made the work I was doing feel important, if not urgent.
It was my first project with Aspen Journalism, and from the start, this assignment was way out of my comfort zone. I knew it was risky, if not dangerous, to start asking questions about immigrants' legal status and confronting Aspen business owners about their hiring practices. The assignment was to find an undocumented immigrant who was willing to share their story, a prospect that could put this person at potential risk for deportation and also make their employers liable, though my subjects would be protected by anonymity. Still, what if they somehow got found out? What if what I wrote hurt an Aspen business or (to be honest) hurt my relationship with an Aspen business? Journalists by definition are not supposed to have these kinds of allegiances, but this is a small community. Of course I do.
Still, I jumped at the challenge, in part because I was excited to stretch myself as a journalist but also because I felt that this is an important story that needed to be told. People often talk about Aspen being in a bubble, but here was a national story that is happening right here, quite literally, in our backyards. These are the people who build our houses, cook our food, tend our gardens, clean our rooms and even raise our children. They might be our coworkers, the parents of our kids' classmates, our neighbors and our friends.
But there was so much I didn't know.
When it comes to immigration, I think the first question most people ask is, "Why can't they just get legal?"
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As many local employers who want to help their valued employees have learned the hard way, there is no legal path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants. They can't just "get legal," even with the best lawyers that money can buy. And what's worse, under the Trump administration's hard stance on immigration, many face risk of deportation — not if they break the law or commit a violent crime, but for any reason, anytime. First, they're thrown into a detention center (the ICE detention center in Aurora is currently in the middle of a lawsuit by the ACLU for its inhumane labor practices), and after an indeterminate amount of time in a prison that is very much out of the public eye, they are deported and never allowed to return.
I did manage to find someone who was willing to talk to me on the record about what it's like to be undocumented. She has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since she was 4 years old and was brought here illegally as a child. She lives in fear of being deported to Mexico, a country entirely foreign to her. Her employer gave her $1,000 to pay for a lawyer to help her apply for DACA, but the money ran out before her application was finalized. Trump has since suspended the program for new applicants. Still, if you sit and talk to her and spend time with her, she is entirely American. Even if she wasn't born here, she was raised here. Even though this is the only country she has ever known, her life here hangs in limbo, her future entirely uncertain, and her opportunities severely limited.
Here's another thing to think about: In the Roaring Fork School District, Latinos comprise at least 55 percent of the student body. Simple math: Latinos are not a minority, at least not in the midvalley. I love that the Basalt Elementary School offers a bilingual program that starts in kindergarten. What better way to integrate? I am thrilled that my son will grow up in such an inclusive community.
Needless to say, I learned a lot in researching this story about immigration law and significant legislation that had been passed over the last 30 years that brought us to where we are today. It's not all Trump's fault — anti-immigration sentiment really kicked in after 9/11 but started before that. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was formed in 2003, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was passed in 1996, creating a 10-year ban for anyone in violation of their immigration status, either by overstaying a visa or entering the country illegally. That is the reason most people don't want to risk seeking a legal path even if they had one available to them.
And like so many shocking headlines in the Trump era when it sometimes feels like the chaos of controversy is spun intentionally to throw the media off, the story about migrant children has become yesterday's news. My story was published and even the crickets aren't responding much. But this is more than just a story — these are people who live right here and are an important part of our community. They are not yesterday's news. They are the future.
The Princess hopes you'll read the story and let her know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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