Fear in the Valley

Immigrants in southern Colorado live in the shadows of anxiety following a high-profile raid

  • San Luis Valley residents gathered for a prayer vigil after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid resulted in the arrest of 18 workers at a potato processing plant there in April


Four-year-old Miguel has an evening routine: He stares out his window across southern Colorado’s painfully flat San Luis Valley, waiting for his father, Roberto, to return from work at the Worley & McCullough potato processing plant near the town of Center. But on the evening of April 17, the routine was broken when Roberto didn’t come home. That morning, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided the plant and arrested him and 17 of his coworkers. Roberto was taken to a jail in Denver, more than 200 miles away. He didn’t see his family again for 10 days.

At first, Elena (the family asked that their real names not be used), told their three children that their father was just working longer hours, coming home after the children were in bed and leaving before they woke up. But after a few days, 6-year-old Alex overheard his mother crying on the phone — something about his father being in a jail in Denver.

Rather than trying to explain things like immigration and why people from something called “ICE” took his father away, Elena tried to convince her oldest child that he had misunderstood.

“Daddy is in Denver working with his cousin, not in jail,” she assured him again and again. She even called the school and asked Alex’s teachers to corroborate her story.

After 10 days, Roberto finally returned home. To the children, it seemed the family’s nightmare was over. But just a few days later, a letter came in the mail, ordering him to report to an immigration office in Alamosa, the bureaucratic hub for this vast agricultural valley. Roberto didn’t come home that night, either.

For two more weeks, Elena made up stories about the jobs he was doing with his cousin in Denver and the new car that he would be bringing home any day now. Alex seemed satisfied, and the stories helped Elena disguise the fear that had taken over her own life.


The San Luis Valley bust was just one in a string of increasingly regular raids across the country. In December, ICE agents converged on six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in multiple states simultaneously, hauling away hundreds of workers. This summer, agents continued to ratchet up the pressure, netting 14 arrests in a raid on a U.S. Forest Service contractor in Idaho and over 100 more suspected illegal immigrants at an Oregon food processing plant.

Each raid tightens the grip of fear among immigrants living in the United States, sending tremors through their communities. Meanwhile, states have passed strict new immigration laws that exacerbate the anxiety. Yet evidence suggests that the raids have done little to curb undocumented immigration. Meanwhile, by further ostracizing “illegals,” the raids may actually worsen the problems associated with undocumented immigration and hamper assimilation for generations to come.

“This is a little bit of theater. It’s not unlike taking off our shoes at the airport,” says Tomás Jimenéz, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. “Like it or not, a lot of these people have children who are born in the United States that are American citizens, and their children will grow up here and stay here. If many of the children of these immigrants start out having their parents labeled illegal … it can have a ripple effect on assimilation well into the future, and that’s not good for the United States.”

Roberto immigrated to Colorado from Mexico 13 years ago and has lived and worked illegally in the valley’s mushroom farms and potato facilities ever since, using a fake social security number. Elena followed him here, and all three of their children were born in Colorado as American citizens. Since the San Luis Valley raid, Roberto has spent more than three weeks in detention centers, constantly living under the threat of deportation. During that time, federal marshals convinced him to testify against his former employer. He must stay in the state, and he can’t work or drive while he waits to testify, which could be several months or longer. In the meantime, Elena says, there is mostly just fear.

“Everyone’s afraid now. People are panicking, and lots of people are afraid to leave their houses. I haven’t gone to the grocery store in a month, I’ve been so scared of getting picked up.”

That anxiety has been widespread among all the valley’s immigrant workers, not just the families of those arrested in the raid. Immediately after the news broke that ICE was in town, a tidal wave of rumors flooded the tiny communities and the 8,000 acres of farm and ranch land on the valley floor.

“The next day, a text message went around that there would be a raid at the school,” recalls George Welsh, superintendent of the Center Consolidated School District. He estimates that about 20 percent of the district’s students come from homes where at least one family member is here illegally. “We had to send around another message saying, ‘The school is the safest place for your kids to be …’ but some families disappeared with their kids and still haven’t come back.”

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