Fault lines in the land of opportunity

  • 'People say that illegal immigrant kids are draining our schools. I say, wait a minute, I'm a U.S. citizen and I didn't speak English until I was in third grade,' says Sylvia Martinez, the child of migrant workers. 'Don't assume that just because someone doesn't speak English that they are an illegal immigrant.'

    Jared Boyd
  • Gilbert Rios, 17, and Angel Escalara, 14, duke it out in a makeshift boxing ring in Greeley, Colorado's northeastern section, where lifetime Greeley residents like Rios and Escalara live next to a growing immigrant population.

    Jared Boyd
  • Filipa Bonia, a Salvadoran who has worked at the Swift

    Jared Boyd

Page 2

A spark

Greeley’s immigrants have always met mixed reactions. In earlier days, some in the Anglo community financed schools specifically for them; others started a powerful chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, many locals embrace the cultural diversity brought by immigrants, while others publicly denounce the "invasion of the Mexicans."

The most recent controversy flared up last fall, when Weld County District Attorney Kenneth Buck blamed new immigrants for contributing to the area’s rising crime rate. In recent years, a long-standing network of gangs has become more violent: In 2004, Greeley experienced six gang-related homicides in as many months. That number has gone down, but drive-by shootings — most of which don’t hit anyone — still occur on a weekly basis, according to Buck.

Buck concedes that only a small percentage of Greeley’s gang members are undocumented immigrants. He nevertheless credits some of the changes in gang activity to increasing supplies of methamphetamine from Mexico. "The language and culture and other similarities are part of that drug distribution network," he says. Meanwhile, Greeley leads the state in aggravated re-entry cases — the arrest of convicted felons who have come back to the country after being deported.

These trends inspired the effort to coax an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to Greeley. Buck hoped the ICE office would help prevent repeat offenses, ranging from assault to drunk driving, by deporting undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes.

The proposal came when immigration was in the spotlight at the local, state and national levels. In November, the Colorado Board of Education put Weld County School District on an "accreditation watch" for failing to meet state academic standards, a predicament often attributed to the high percentage of students who speak English as a second language. At the same time, state legislators were considering immigration-related bills, including one that would authorize local police to enforce federal immigration laws. (Because undocumented immigration is a civil, not a criminal, offense, local police have no power to arrest those without documents.) In December, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, R, pushed the restrictionist Sensenbrenner bill, which would make it a felony to be an undocumented immigrant, through the House of Representatives.

University of Northern Colorado Professor Priscilla Falcón and one of her students felt the ICE proposal was tinged with racism. They responded by holding the meeting that Sylvia Martinez attended on Nov. 2, which ultimately sparked the mass movement against the proposal.

The city government did not support the effort to attract an ICE office, and Greeley still doesn’t have one. But the movement sparked by the protests hasn’t died. Martinez joined other activists to form the group Latinos Unidos, which continues to advocate for immigrant rights and is fighting an effort to drop bilingual education from local schools. Another group, El Voto Latino, formed this spring to mobilize Hispanic voters. And 50 percent of last session’s graduates of the Greeley Government Academy, which helps prepare citizens to become active in local government, were Hispanic. Recently, Martinez was a regular voice on KGRE, the Spanish-language radio station, urging listeners to participate in the May 1 "Day Without Immigrants."

Oscar Granados, a lean Salvadoran with almond-shaped eyes who works at the meatpacking plant, was one of many who listened. Hundreds took to Greeley’s streets on May Day, and so many made plans to boycott work that Swift & Co. closed four of its five beef plants across the country, including Greeley’s.

"It’s important that people see how necessary the work we do is," says Granados, of the May 1 rallies. "There will finally be a day when we will be able to fight."

"Them wetbacks"

Although the May 1 demonstration could be considered a success, questions linger about immigrants and their various impacts, even within Greeley’s Hispanic community.

Economists quarrel over the economic implications of a massive, undocumented workforce, but one fact is undisputed: Blue collar and so-called low-skilled workers are more likely to see their wages drop or to lose their jobs because of immigrant labor. The dynamic is twofold: Immigration floods the labor market with low-skilled workers, who typically work for less than the going rate. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Mexican immigrants’ wages are on average 40 percent less than those of native workers. That can breed resentment among those in the same socio-economic group as the immigrants: the working poor, who are often other Hispanics.

Several blocks west of Greeley’s meatpacking plant, two Latino teens dance around the front yard of a small blue house, their hands swathed in white socks that serve as makeshift boxing gloves. The taller one is using his reach to great advantage; as they parry and jab, he forces the shorter, stouter one up against the picket fence at the edge of the ring. A trickle of blood runs from the underdog’s nose.

From the street, one might assume that the boxers are Mexican kids hoping to pull themselves out of the migrant cycle by becoming the next Erik Morales. But these kids aren’t Mexican: they have lived in Greeley all their lives. So has Linda Ríos, who stands on the porch watching her son, Angel Escalara, spar. Greeley is her home, she says, although she no longer lives here. Lack of opportunities pushed her east, to another meatpacking town, Garden City, Kan. She’s here visiting her parents.

"What’s the use of being here if there’s no life here?" she asks, explaining her move. Her kids got tangled up with gangs, she says; one was shot at, another was stabbed and almost died. The jobs dried up, too, which Ríos attributes in part to an influx of Mexican immigrants willing to work for lower wages. Her resentment of the immigrants persists, in spite of her declaration that she’s a Chicana and her acknowledgment that "everyone wants to make a life."

Ríos also feels that the undocumented immigrants put a heavy burden on education and social services. Although undocumented immigrants have no access to federal welfare services, they do use public schools and emergency medical care. But she’s most concerned about the forces that have proven dangerous to her children: the gangs, which she says are "mostly Mexican."

"That’s the problem," she says, her temper rising. "Them wetbacks."

Other feature articles in this special issue on immigration:

The Immigrant's Trail - introductory essay

Abandonment - Small Mexican farming towns such as Francisco Villa in Sonora are emptied of their young men when the lack of good-paying local jobs sends them north of the border

Perseverance - Illegal border crossers face a dangerous journey filled with heat, dust, flies and thirst, and always the danger of capture and deportation

Apprehension - U.S. fish and Wildlife Service Officer John Schaefer is one of only two officers patrolling the 860,000 acres of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a thoroughfare for illegal immigrants and armed drug smugglers

Hope - After 16 years of living in the shadows in Pasco, Wash., Wendy and Erendira Santana finally win legal residency