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Colorado Town Copes with Immigration Raids

May 1, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: At 8:00 on a recent Friday morning, these women were busy making homemade tamales, not an unusual event in this neighborhood in Greeley, Colorado, one of the fastest-growing Hispanic communities in the country.

But these tamales have a special purpose: to raise money to feed and clothe the families affected by the immigration raids in December.

The impact of those raids still reverberate in this town of 76,000. The 261 people were arrested by officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, at the local Swift meatpacking plant. Some were charged with working without legal documentation; some were also charged with identity theft, for using other people’s Social Security numbers. Many with no outstanding criminal charges were given a choice: voluntarily leave the country or face deportation hearings.

Over 100, like Pedro Tecum, who worked at Swift for six years, chose to stay and fight. He returned to Greeley instead of going back to his home country of Guatemala.

PEDRO TECUM, Former Swift Employee (through translator): I don’t want to go back. I have three children, three who were born here. I can’t take them back. Things are difficult back there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since he’s not allowed to work while out on bail, he, his wife, Juana, and their three American-born children depend on places like the Falcon Center to provide diapers, clothing and food.

PEDRO TECUM (through translator): Well, with the help they are providing us here, we are getting a lot of help. But now that it’s over, we are desperate to see where to get help.

Raids strain charities

Helen Somersall
Catholic Charities
It's going to be hard when -- because we've used up all of the funds from the donations from United Way and from the Swift funds. And the church has some left, and we have a little left.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The presence of returning detainees and other families left behind has strained private charities and volunteer groups in Greeley. Ricardo Romero, who runs the center, with the help of volunteers and private donations, says it has given out more than $25,000 worth of food and supplies, but donations are dwindling, and the shelves are bare.

RICARDO ROMERO, Ricardo Falcon Center: It's really tough, and I think that's what people don't understand, is these particular families that haven't resolved their cases in court are kind of stuck, you know? And they can't work. And they can't leave the state. So they're like, what are they going to do? And that's the dilemma we're facing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A few blocks away, at Our Lady of Peace Church, Catholic charities is providing a help center to assist more than 100 families in paying their monthly bills. Helen Somersall, who directs the effort, says the funds are running out, and still people just keep coming.

HELEN SOMERSALL, Catholic Charities, Greeley: It's going to be hard when -- because we've used up all of the funds from the donations from United Way and from the Swift funds. And the church has some left, and we have a little left. We can't continue the volume we've been continuing.

Judicial system can't 'keep up'

Victor Cerda
Former Chief Counsel, ICE
You have a waiting period of up to a year just to have your next hearing date so that you can seek relief. And of course, during that time you're in this legal limbo situation where you can't depart the country. You can't work in the United States.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the volume will continue, because most of those arrested don't have court dates until August. The charges stress an already overcrowded court system, according to Victor Cerda, the former chief counsel for ICE.

VICTOR CERDA, Former Chief Counsel, Immigration and Customs Enforcement: What you have in certain districts, large cities, that you have a waiting period of up to a year just to have your next hearing date so that you can seek relief. And of course, during that time, you're in this legal limbo situation where you can't depart the country. You can't work in the United States.

And you're very much at the mercy of the system. So that is a -- what we're seeing here is a system of an overwhelmed system, a judicial system that hasn't been able to keep up with our immigration requirements.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Swift and Company, a meatpacking plant that was the target of the raids in December, is also feeling the pinch, reporting a decline in earnings. The company says it lost more than $30 million, as the raids forced it to slow down production and to train new workers.

Illegal immigrants' impact

Ken Buck
District Attorney, Weld County
There has been a lot more public awareness about some of the side effects of illegal immigration, the folks that are actually losing property as the result of illegal immigration. I mean, there's more awareness about that.

MEETING PARTICIPANT: So it doesn't violate the Fifth to call a defendant?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: District Attorney Ken Buck says the city of Greeley has also paid a price for having so many illegal immigrants.

KEN BUCK, District Attorney, Weld County: According to the sheriff, anywhere from a quarter to a third of the jail population in Weld County are illegal immigrants. And that's a significant number.

We have a significant problem in the school system. I am told by educators here that about one-fifth, about 20 percent of the students in K through 5 are monolingual Spanish-speaking, so there are a lot of resources that are spent to teach those students English that aren't being spent to teach the other students math and other subjects that they're tested on.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He says the raids have helped residents understand some of the impact of illegal immigration, like identity theft.

KEN BUCK: There has been a lot more public awareness about some of the side effects of illegal immigration, the folks that are actually losing property as the result of illegal immigration. I mean, there's more awareness about that. Employers are a lot more aware about what their obligations are and some of the things that they need to look for.

A 'divided' town

Judy Knapp
Meeting Participant
I know the comment came up that people in Denver and other areas think we're the community with white streets and narrow minds. And we really need to change that perception, to be more of a welcoming and inclusive community.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Ricardo Romero worries that the raids have solidified a divide that is already evident in the area. His family has been in the U.S. for seven generations.

RICARDO ROMERO, Ricardo Falcon Center: Mexicans can go to the movies on Tuesdays, swimming on Thursdays. I'm not 100 years old. So that's how badly segregated it's always been.

This is the north side. Take a look at it. Drive through it. And then go to West Greeley. Totally divided. What little gains we made have been taken back, you know, taken back and taken back.

So I don't know what the future holds, but the situation is that, as human beings, we have to come together. We have to come together in this country. And if we don't, we're going to come apart.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Greeley is now more than 30 percent Hispanic, with the population growing every year, with both legal and undocumented immigrants. Mayor Tom Selders says the residents on both sides of the issue need to start communicating.

MAYOR TOM SELDERS, Greeley, Colorado: I think we need be talking to each other rather than talking about each other. And, unfortunately, sometimes we've done that. We've just talked about them and haven't included them, or they haven't included us. So talking to each other is important.

MEETING PARTICIPANT: What we want Greeley to be like down the road, as far as a community that is integrated...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The city of Greeley was awarded a four-year grant from the Colorado Trust to hold meetings to work out some of those differences.

MEETING PARTICIPANT: If you look a certain way, you live on one side of town. If you have a certain income level, you live on another side of town. And the color of your skin seems to immediately make a division for some folks, immediately, the language barrier.

MEETING PARTICIPANT: And then you get the fear factor, which -- and I'm going to blame it on the political party, because they want us to keep the fear out there. Of the people I've talked to, the average person wants to get along with everybody.

And you get in that argument, this people wants to round them all out. Well, the average person, I'd say would say no about that. We have people in this country that are here that broke the law. The community without a law, and they ignore it, you don't have a community, either.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many participants said they hope the raids would be the impetus for the city to finally deal with some of the long-simmering problems.

JUDY KNAPP, Meeting Participant: Now it's up to us to get together and try to heal and to move forward and decide what it is that we want Greeley to look like. And I know the comment came up that people in Denver and other areas think we're the community with white streets and narrow minds. And we really need to change that perception, to be more of a welcoming and inclusive community.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hispanic leaders in Greeley say they are fearful of more raids. Just last week, the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency announced plans to open a new office in town to better monitor the hiring of undocumented workers.