ERASMA ZUNÚN LOPEZ lives a cautious life since the day she was arrested during an immigration raid almost two years ago. Now, doors are always double-locked and curtains are shut at her home. She lives near a police station in Greeley, Colorado, and she shivers any time she sees a police officer. She rushes back into her house when a white van approaches the station. She cries often for no immediate reason. Recurring nightmares haunt her. She no longer takes her eight grandchildren to the park a few blocks away. Her worst fear is to be separated from them again.
Lopez was one of 262 people who were arrested in 2006 when federal immigration agents raided the Swift & Company meatpacking plant in Greeley where she worked. About 1,300 workers were arrested at six of the company’s sites nationwide. Since the raid, justice has been postponed for at least 32 immigrant families like hers who live in legal limbo while they wait to see an immigration judge in October.
“They are stuck,” said Ricardo Romero, a Colorado immigrant rights activist. “They can’t work…what the hell are you doing giving them court dates two years after they’ve been arrested?”
Many of the workers arrested in Greeley were Mexicans and Guatemalans, but the group also included Hondurans, Ethiopians and Laotians. Among those from Mexico and Guatemala were many indigenous peoples from those countries who lived in families here with mixed documentation status. While they may not be citizens, they have U.S.-born children and spouses, or siblings who are citizens. Most of those arrested that day signed documents for voluntary deportation. Others, like Lopez, chose to fight in court to stay, even if their likelihood of winning was remote. Some who were deported have already crossed the border again and are back with their children and working in Greeley’s underground economy.
Al Frente de Lucha, a nonprofit organization run by Romero, has been helping 17 families with supplies and food coupons with the support of a local church, but help is running out.
Lopez worked for nine years at the Swift plant. It was a tough and dirty job, but it paid. She cleaned cattle carcasses with a knife, taking out hairs, grease and sometimes excrement. Her chest often hurt from the weight of lifting and turning the carcasses, and it still does.
The morning of the raid, the assembly line stopped earlier than usual, Lopez recalled. Workers were summoned to the cafeteria for a break.
After getting out of her metallic protective gear, Lopez heard the turmoil from a distance. “¡La migra! ¡Es la migra!” It was too late to get away.
“Where are you going?” asked one of the security guards.
“I’m going to the restroom,” she answered.
She admits now that she was lying. “I was too afraid they’d take me away. I wouldn’t see my grandchildren.”
Her husband, Jorge Martinez, arrived in disbelief at the plant as he saw his wife carried into one of the last buses; she was handcuffed at her hands and feet.
“They were taking them like criminals,” described Martinez. “They had helicopters [and] vans. Children were crying outside, ‘mamá, papá.’ Police were pushing the desperate crowd back.” He had never seen anything like that in his 20 years of living in the U.S.
A couple of blocks from his house, ICE was knocking on doors and taking people from their homes.
That very day, Martinez went to school to pick up his niece’s 9-year-old son. She had also been arrested and, shortly after, deported. Like many other people, she came back across the border, breaking a foot on the trip across.
“There are still children to this date [who] don’t have their parent by their side,” Martinez said with sorrow and anger. “Who gave them a diaper, a taco? Who cared to pick them up from school? Can’t the government see what it’s doing to its own children?”
Martinez’s and Lopez’s stories reflect the complicated maze of legalizing one’s status. Originally from Chiapas, Mexico, Martinez had recently become a U.S. citizen and applied to legalize his wife’s status. Because Lopez had entered the country illegally, she would have to go back to Mexico and wait until the process was completed, which would take years. The very same regulations requiring immigrants to return to Mexico also bar them from returning to the U.S. if they entered the country and remained illegally.
“I didn’t want to separate the family, nor take my grandchildren to a land that is not their own,” said Martinez.
Life has changed dramatically since the raid.
“We used to have two checks coming in, now it’s only one,” said Martinez. “We’re limited in food [and] clothes, and gas is expensive.” He works the 10 p.m.-to-7 a.m. night shift at the local Wal-Mart, waxing floors for $11.50 an hour.
“If I don’t work those hours, I can’t buy a gallon of milk,” said Martinez, a U.S. citizen who now supports his eight U.S.-born grandchildren and won’t allow his son and two daughters, who are undocumented, to work with fake papers.
The town of Greeley itself also hasn’t been quite the same since las redadas (the raids). Commerce City, the local flea market, doesn’t see as many Latino families as there used to be, according to Martinez. “The color of our skin condemns us,” he said about his fear of being detained by the police even though he is a U.S. citizen.
Greeley has always been a city split in two. The western side is where most of the white population concentrates, and Latinos largely live on the eastern side near the giant Swift & Company meatpacking plant. The town has long been an agricultural hub, and in recent decades the meatpacking industry has attracted an immigrant workforce. Latinos are about one-third of the almost 94,000 residents in the town.
The raids brought to the surface the divisive politics behind immigration.
“Most people realized they were hiring all kinds of workers there, some documented and some not, but they were winking or pretending it wasn’t happening,” said Steve Brown, a retired pastor from Family of Christ Presbyterian Church. “When the raid happened, it got ugly. We started seeing articles saying ‘Send them all home,’ ‘Kick the illegals out of here’ [and] ‘They don’t have rights.’”
Tom Selders, the city’s two-term Republican mayor, didn’t get reelected after speaking out against the raids in Washington D.C. and endorsing a Senate immigration reform proposal that was equated with amnesty. Critics of the mayor and supporters of federal worksite enforcement blamed illegal immigration for a rise in violent crime in the town and $36 million in uncollected bills at the local hospital. Weld County District Attorney Kenneth Buck was involved in the prosecution of 20 identity theft cases related to the raids and even suggested establishing a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office.
Over the last two years, ICE—the interior enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security—has stepped up its worksite crackdowns, nearly doubling the number of workers arrested. Immigrant workers are increasingly criminally charged with identity theft for using fraudulent social security numbers and a fake name to get a job.
Meanwhile, only about 90 owners, supervisors or hiring officials were arrested in fiscal year 2007, compared with nearly 4,900 arrests that involved undocumented workers, fake document providers and others, according to figures from ICE. In the first quarter of 2008, 75 owners were arrested, compared to more than 3,675 workers.
In May, ICE agents arrested 389 workers when they raided the Agriproccesors Inc. meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. More than 297 workers were criminally charged and sentenced during the same month in mass judicial hearings.
The increased crackdown and criminalization of workers are drawing criticism from immigrant rights advocates, who are fearful that this will become the future trend for law enforcement. A report produced by the National Council of La Raza in conjunction with the Urban Institute documents the inadequacy of government provisions for tending to the needs of families and the children caught in the middle of these raids. The report estimates that there are 5 million children in the country who are citizens and have at least one immigrant parent who is undocumented.
As a result of the increased crackdown, local communities like Greeley have been left to improvise solutions.
Shortly after the raids, Ricardo Romero realized he needed to move quicker than most organizations do to get aid to families. He managed to raise $30,000 worth of food, baby formula, diapers, clothing and other items. But that’s no longer the case.
“The money is dried up…after so long…we don’t have any money coming,” he said.
The Family of Christ Presbyterian Church, a 60-member congregation, received a $15,000 grant from the national Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Fund in 2007. They were able to help more than 24 families for a period of a year with $100 food coupons, but the money ran out at the beginning of June.
“People are frightened to seek help,” said Ann Ratcliffe, a church member and local resident who helped with the efforts. “We’re trying to figure out what our next step will be.”
Families like Marina Vicente’s rely heavily on this aid. She is a stay-at-home mother with four children. “Thank God people like Ricardo help us,” said Vicente, who is part of the K’iche’ community in Greely that was largely impacted by the raids. “I don’t have work. It’s only beans and tortillas.”
Vicente was six months pregnant when ICE detained her at the meatpacking plant. The emotional ordeal was so massive she had a nervous breakdown. She was afraid it would hurt her baby, but her daughter Laura, who recently turned a year old, is healthy.
“I’m traumatized with what happened. I’ll beg God so I can forget,” said Vicente, whose court date is in October. “I was raised to earn my food with the sweat of my brows…If they decide to send me back, I’ll leave.”
There are jobs available in Greeley, but many immigrants won’t dare take them.
Some families have started selling Mexican and Guatemalan homemade tamales. Others have taken on informal work cleaning yards or doing domestic and handyman work. A couple decided to take the chance of working in the carrot fields. Several families live together in one house out of fear that another raid will come.
“If times are bad here, can you imagine how much worse it gets in our countries?” said Ernesto Sichy Garcia, a Guatemalan immigrant. He and his wife, Isaura Sontay, were arrested in the raids. They don’t have children, but sometimes they still find it hard to pay rent. A local banker gave them a place to live and often excuses them when they are late with a payment.
Garcia started working at the Swift plant two years before the raid because a friend convinced him he could make more money than working on the ranches, where he made between $5 and $7 an hour. “I was paying taxes I could never claim,” he said.
After being held for four months in an immigration detention center in Texas, Garcia returned to find that many of his Guatemalan family members were gone. “They didn’t explain anything to us—just ‘sign here,’ and that’s the end of it,” he said. “I wasn’t about to sign anything without an explanation.”
Many families are anxiously awaiting the October decision of a judge who will dictate their future in the U.S. Lopez clings to the hope she will be allowed to stay to continue to raise her grandchildren. “If Gods grants me this wish, I [will] stay here,” she said.
Valeria Fernández is a reporter for La Voz newspaper in Phoenix, Arizona.