Contradiction

  • '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."

 

This story is a sidebar to the feature:

The Immigrant's Trail

This special issue of High Country News takes an on-the-ground look at the human landscape of illegal immigration in the West

rjlaybourn
rjlaybourn
May 12, 2006 04:09 PM

As a European-American growing up in Cheyenne, Wyoming in the 1950's; a few schoolmates in my parochial school were called "Mexicans". At that time1% of Wyoming's people were black or African-American and we called them "Negros". My playground friends with brown complexions were the sons of agricultural workers from Northern Colorado who seized the opportunity to hire on with the Union Pacific Railroad during the labor shortages of World War II. They were the grandsons of rural residents of New Mexico. Their progenitors became citizens of "Los Estados Unidos America" when annexed in 1848 after being invaded by an imperial U.S. army. My Grandmother "Nana" told me of a time in the Great Depression when people of Tom Tancredo's ilk and the Governor of Colorado mobilized Colorado State Troopers at the New Mexico border to deny ethnic residents of their sister state entry to Colorado to work in the beetfields of Greeley, Fort Lupton and Fort Collins. The Governor of New Mexico responded by mobilizing the National Guard to escort U.S. citizens across the rectilinear, Eurocentric and arbitrary border. Colorado has a long history of racism; against "Utes, Cheyennes, Mexicans, Chinamen, Confederates, and Negros". I remember from my schoolboy history that Conquistadors called indigenous people "Indios" thinking they were in the East Indies. After decimation by disease and ethnic intermarriage people were called "Mestizos" and people of Santa Fe and the headwaters of the Rio Grande were "Gente del Norte" I believe. In my teens I heard of "La Raza,Chicanos, Migrants and Braceros". I saw a subtle to overt feeling of superiority over the "Mexicans & Wetbacks"; just as Mexicans practice racism towards Mexican Indians and Central Americans. Labels, labels, and more labels, a diversity manipulated by politicians to exploit our xenophopia. As we try to solve the problems of people crossing nationalistic borders; we do ourselves a disservice if we don't remember the record of immigration and history of North America. We are all Americans: metis' and mestizo; North, Central, South and Artic. Derogatorily called rednecks,dagos, polacks, hebes, chinks, scandahoovians, wetbacks, puritans, calvinists, negros, cajuns and canucks. We are Salvadoreans, Californians, Wyomingites, and Blackfeet.

Anonymous
Apr 03, 2007 11:27 AM

hi, oh and jon says hi too

Anonymous
Apr 03, 2007 11:27 AM

hi, oh and jon says hi too