‘Fear is omnipresent’: Undocumented immigrants, advocates share experiences, how to help

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Protestors demonstrate outside of BI’s Gunbarrel headquarters in mid-2019.

Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019

Armando Peniche was walking home from school when he saw flashing red and blue lights on the ground and heard a voice shout, “Freeze!” He was being stopped by two police. He was 12.

The cops rifled through Peniche’s pockets and his backpack. They handcuffed him and took his student ID. Peniche sat on the curb as they ran his name through the system, his face burning in embarrassment as passersby stared.

“They assumed cops were making the city safer,” he said. “It’s hard for me to explain to you the shame I felt sitting there in handcuffs with everybody pointing at me like I was some criminal.”

Stronger than the shame was the fear. Peniche was an undocumented immigrant. What if they took him into custody and discovered his status? What if his dad had to come get him? Would he need identification? Could his dad possibly be deported just for trying to pick his son up from jail?

Peniche was released that day with a warning to “Stay out of trouble.” But the fear he felt has persisted, intensifying in recent years amid changing immigration policies and news reports of ICE raids, kids in cages and other horror stories at the country’s southern border and beyond.

“As an undocumented person,” Peniche said, “the very, very last thing you want to do is get in trouble. Even a simple traffic violation can lead to deportation.”

That fear is widespread throughout the Latinx community, documented or not. Peniche was joined by undocumented immigrants and the heads of nonprofits who work with immigrants in speaking about the impacts of living in near-constant fear, at a panel and performance event called “Immigrants Are America: How to help in your own backyard,” hosted Monday night by BouldeReach and the Community Foundation Boulder County at the Museum of Boulder.

“Feeling fear all the time that you can step out of your house and someone is going to arrest you… it’s really impacting (the community’s) mental wellbeing,” said Jorge de Santiago, executive director of El Centro Amistad. “They are living with depression and fear all the time.  The mental strain is causing physical illness as well.

“Our community is getting sick.”

The worry extends beyond those who are undocumented. Friends, families, loved ones and neighbors of these individuals share in the trauma.

“Many of our students, they’re worried about their family members being deported,” said Michelle Carpenter, an AP Spanish teacher at Boulder High School. “That fear of family members deportation or their own is omnipresent. That makes learning a challenge.”

Tania Chairez has devoted her life to helping undocumented immigrants like herself. She has been a community organizer since 2011; while in college at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, she founded an immigrants rights group and was arrested for her blocking traffic in front of an ICE office. Latina magazine in 2014 named her one of 12 inspiring Latinas under 25, and she has twice been featured in TIME magazine about DACA recipients. Today she helps advise college students who are also navigating the immigration process.

But ultimately, she knows she is powerless to protect those she loves.

“I’m afraid,” Chairez said. “I’m afraid that in the end, no matter how much I fought for others, I won’t be able to save my own family from deportation.”

Ana Casas Ibarra spoke passionately about her brother, Luis, who was deported after pleading guilty to possessing marijuana, among other things. (Luis was under 21, the legal age for possession and consumption.) After being detained for six months, Luis was sent to his native Mexico. He had lived in America from the age of six.

“Is that justice?” Casas Ibarra asked, noting that Luis’ white friends, also caught with marijuana in Boulder, where it is legal for those over 21, did not go to jail.

“How many of you at 18 made mistakes? How many of your sons, daughters, cousins, nephews, brothers, sisters, got in trouble? How would you feel if they were sent away forever to a dangerous city and country they didn’t even know? Does that crime fit the punishment?”

Casas Ibarra, Peniche and Chairez are part of Boulder’s Motus Theatre, which has a mission to “create original theater to facilitate dialogue on critical issues.” The monologues the trio wrote and performed were based on their own experiences as undocumented immigrants. Each one of them called for more action from the majority white audience.

“You think you’ve done enough by staying caught up on the news. My life is not a talking point,” Chairez said. “Every day that you don’t take action is another day that the status quo prevails. … I’m exhausted from pulling your weight.

It’s not like I enjoy the fact that I need you. But I do. Please listen to your heart, not just for me or the undocumented community, but for your own humanity, too.”

Many people feel that the crisis is happening only at the Mexican border, said Ana Temu, immigrations campaigns coordinator for ACLU Colorado. But there is much that can be done here. Aurora is home to an immigrant detention center; the company responsible for monitoring non-detained immigrants, BI Inc., is headquartered in Gunbarrel.

Activists have been pressuring local governments to shed their contracts with BI and its parent company, GEO Group, which runs the Aurora detention center. The Boulder County Sheriff’s office pays BI roughly $12,000 annually for ankle monitors and spends $640,000 for work release beds run by another group involved in immigrant detention, Core Civic.

The city of Boulder does not have any contracts in which tax dollars go to these three companies. It does provide off-duty police officers to BI, for which the city is paid, though it briefly halted the practice. City council on Tuesday agreed Boulder should continue to pressure BI’s leadership to meet with elected officials and advocates concerned over the treatment of those under electronic surveillance.

The Colorado public employees’ pension fund, PERA, also invests in GEO Group, meaning that the retirement funds of all city of Boulder and Boulder County are helping to fund private prisons and immigrant detention centers.

As long as local money continues to flow to these companies, said ACLU’s Temu, and the Aurora detention center remains open, there’s work to be done locally.

“We have such a huge problem in our own state,” she said. “And we have ways of bettering the situation through our own local means.”

How to help

The heads of numerous nonprofits shared what their organizations need to continue their work with immigrant populations. Here are some ways you can help:

ACLU Colorado: Defends the right to due process and equal protection regardless of immigration status

What they need: Paralegals and other legal professionals to provide services to immigrants. Donations to the legal defense fund to post bond for detained persons at the Aurora center. Just 10% of the 1,500 detainees have legal representation, Temu said.

Temu also encouraged residents to push their elected officials on a number of policies, including but not limited to comprehensive immigration reform, divesting PERA from GEO Group, BI and Core Civic, increased oversight of the Aurora detention center by allowing elected officials and media to access the facility, and limiting cooperation between immigration officials and local law enforcement.

When our community members are scared to call 911, come forward as a witness, report a crime, we are all less safe,” Temu said. The first and most important thing anyone can do “is vote. There is an election this year. You can’t miss an election.”

Casa de Paz: Translated as House of Peace, Casa de Paz offers lodging and meals to the families of those being held in the Aurora detention center and for those recently released from detention.

What they needVolunteers to pick up released immigrants and help them reunite with their families, cook meals for guests, visit detained immigrants, clean the Casa and organize donations. Visit a detained immigrant. Casa would also like gift cards to help pay for the cost of groceries and supplies. King Soopers and Target were specifically mentioned.

El Centro Amistad: Promotes health equity, education and quality of life for Boulder County’s Latinx community.

What they need: El Centro Amistad is seeking bilingual, bicultural therapists. 

Intercambio: Provides cultural integration and English classes to immigrants in Boulder County

What they need: Intercambio needs volunteers to speak with English-language learners and monetary donations to pay for childcare at its Lafayette classes. For those who can’t make an ongoing commitment, there is also a one-time opportunity for people to volunteer to help immigrants practice their Spanish at a “speed dating”- style event, said Maye Cordero, marketing and communications director.

Interested parties should visit intercambio.org/volunteer to learn more.

YWCA Boulder County: Provides the only sliding-scale, drop-in childcare program in the Front Range, hosts a Reading to End Racism program and, in collaboration with Google, hosts a STEM program for 5th- to 8th-grade girls.

What they need: Volunteers to read to children for the Reading to End Racism program.

Adelante!: A program at Boulder High School that addresses the achievement gap between Latinx and Anglo students.

What they need: “We need more allies in school,” Boulder High School’s Carpenter said. “Everybody who pays taxes, you’re part of the education machine. Hold your school districts accountable. When they talk about equity, don’t let their words be enough. Look to their actions. Ask those hard questions, get into the schools and see what’s really happening.”

Zonta Foothills Club: Supports women and girls through service programs, mentoring and scholarships. Roughly half of participants in local high school clubs have DACA status or are from immigrant families. Zone also manages free libraries.

What they need: Donated money and books, volunteers to speak at career days for fields that empower women

Colorado Rapid Response Network: A network of volunteers who track in real-time reported ICE raids and notify impacted communities throughout Colorado and Wyoming.

What they need: Volunteers (including but not limited to bilingual individuals) to serve as dispatchers to answer phone calls 24/7 for ICE raids, as well as people to serve as confirmers of reported raids 

Colorado Immigrant Rights Association (CIRC): A coalition of immigrant, faith, labor, youth, community, business and ally organizations.

What they need: Volunteers to do data entry for the CIRC deportation hotline.People can also help by calling their elected officials, development director Stephanie Tanny said.

“Call representative Joe Neguse to thank him for holding the line and making sure in the budget no more money goes to building the wall,” Tanny said.

Immigrant Legal Center: The private, nonprofit law firm only handles immigration law cases; 90% of its clients are low-income Spanish-speakers.

How to help: Founder Laurel Herndon also encouraged residents to contact their elected officials. Thank Joe Neguse, she said, but also call Cory Gardner to express your displeasure at the treatment of immigrants under the current administration.

Herndon also encourages people to be aware of and respond to possible raids in neighborhoods, and to form a human “daisy chain” to physically block ICE agents from entering properties.

Boulder, as a sanctuary city, should be “worried about blowback from ICE,” Herndon said. “We are worried about our neighborhoods.”

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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