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

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's immigration landscape.

GREELEY, Colorado — Sylvia Martinez opens her dark brown eyes wide and leans on the Formica tabletop as she speaks, as if she is about to pounce. She glides easily into Spanish, gently scolding her daughter or chatting with the waitresses who carry tacos and coffee in Jerry’s, the taqueria and grocery store that has long served as a social center and supply spot for this town’s Hispanic community.

But mainly Martinez speaks in English about her rage over national and local calls to deport undocumented immigrants. "Where do they start looking for ‘illegal aliens’? What do they look like?" she asks. "They look like me. They look like my child. Do I have to start carrying my birth certificate around with me? I’ll be damned if I’m going to just stand there and not say something about that."

Last September, two Colorado Republicans, Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, backed an attempt by Weld County’s district attorney and sheriff to bring a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to town. To make their case about "the growing problem of illegal immigration and crime in the community," supporters of the plan drew tenuous connections between undocumented immigration and violent crime, methamphetamine distribution, and gang activity.

Martinez had always stayed out of politics, a tendency she says is typical for most Latinos she knows. But the short, feisty woman, who was born in Montana to migrant farmworkers, attended a meeting on the proposal "just to listen." Politicians on both the state and national level had been tossing around "hateful" anti-immigrant rhetoric, she says, and she wanted to do something about it.

She wasn’t the only one who felt that way: 600 people showed up at each of two subsequent meetings to protest the proposal. The crowds included Latinos and Anglos, some of them longtime activists. But most were people like Martinez: Latinos who had, up until then, stayed on the political fringes. In English and in Spanish, they argued passionately about the potential for racial profiling, praised the contributions of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and questioned their alleged connections to crime. After the meetings, they staged rallies. Local political observers had never seen anything like it.

And so, in a cow-and-college town on the Colorado Plains, a movement was born. It was a foretaste of the one that spread to the nation’s streets this spring, when hundreds of thousands marched for immigrant rights in Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and dozens of other smaller communities around the West.

Brown-skinned laborers

The thump-thump of a bass beat provides the soundtrack for three tank-top-wearing, teenage Latinas who climb out of a silver sedan and sashay across the parking lot. In Spanish, a woman calls to her bike-riding children to watch out for cars. A man in a cowboy hat, pushing a blue helado cart, walks by selling frozen treats, his little bell drowned out by the music from the teenagers’ car. Here in northeast Greeley, a neighborhood of smaller, older houses, agricultural warehouses, taquerias and panaderias, immigrants from south of the border can get a taste of home.

Across town, near the new Wal-Mart and hundreds of oversized, expensive homes, "I don’t see nothing but white people," says Romano Eanuelos, a Greeley native, "but on this side, all you see is just Hispanic people." Recently arrived immigrants live next to those whose families have been in Greeley for generations.

Eanuelos works at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant, a massive, windowless complex that is this neighborhood’s economic and geographic anchor. The 1,800 workers here, in addition to 525 more at corporate headquarters on the west side of town, make Swift one of Greeley’s largest employers. And the packing plant’s $12 per hour jobs, with benefits, provide a strong lure for growing numbers of immigrant laborers.

Nearly nine out of every 10 workers at the plant are Hispanic, tracing their roots to Mexico, El Salvador or Guatemala. If the plant is like others in the industry, nearly 500 of those employees are undocumented immigrants who slip through the company’s verification process with someone else’s Social Security number and papers. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, at least 27 percent of the nation’s meat, poultry and fish processors are undocumented immigrants, putting the industry on a par with the agriculture, construction and service sectors.

Brown-skinned laborers also do much of the building and farm work in Greeley and surrounding areas. One morning this April, migrant workers transplanted onions in nearby fields, while others gathered in the Panaderia Juarez parking lot waiting for contractors to hire them for the day.

Immigrants have long been an important part of Greeley. At the turn of the century, Japanese workers tended the sugar beet fields. Braceros — the mid-century version of guest workers from Mexico — shored up the labor force between the 1940s and 1960s. And by 1970, more than 14,000 Hispanics called Greeley and Weld County home.

Now, Hispanics and Latinos make up about 35 percent of Greeley’s approximately 85,000 people. It’s tough to determine how many are immigrants: Transient and undocumented workers and even many with documents tend to lie below the radar of the U.S. Census. But 22 percent of the school district’s students are "English Language Learners," and Census figures estimate that 10 percent of the community is foreign-born.

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