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Fault lines in the land of opportunity


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.

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