Hidden in Plain Sight” is a new Boulder Weekly series on the plight of the undocumented Latino immigrant in Boulder County. We’ll share insights on a population in our midst that we don’t often “see.”
With the passage of the controversial law SB 1070 in Arizona, which gives more power to police when it comes to cracking down on undocumented workers, this “hidden” population is now in the spotlight. We’ll bring you voices of undocumented Boulder County residents, the majority of them hailing from Mexican roots. We’ll share the stories of immigrants without legal status working in areas such as restaurants, agriculture, construction, janitorial services, nanny roles and meatpacking plants. We’ll reveal the character of Latino youth and the Catch-22 challenges they face as unintended casualties of a broken and complicated immigration system.
We’ll learn about the lifestyle this population leads in the alleged “home of the free.” How are they affecting our local and national economies and at what personal cost? To what extent are the socio-economic realities of their daily lives influencing the decisions they make?
What do they have to say about the risks they took in crossing the border, undocumented, for the elusive dream of a better future for their families? How do they feel about it now, in relation to what they’re doing to support themselves and their familias against the perils of being discovered? What hopes do they cling to amidst the fears of arrest and possible deportation? What happens in the lives of those who gain their citizenship and turn their attention to helping others who aren’t as fortunate?
This series will also bring to light the opinions of an immigration attorney, human rights activists, politicians, community members, social service entities, government officials, nonprofits and companies in industries that have historically used the services of immigrant workers. We’ll hear what some of them have to say about our current immigration system and the type of reform that’s needed to solve the root of the problem that leaves so many fearful and in a state of limbo.
Our first installment will offer a snapshot of the plight of the undocumented Hispanic through the eyes of those who provide assistance to this hidden segment. We spent time chatting with an immigration attorney, a human rights activist, a youth organizer, a Latino community leader and a volunteer fighting for the education and equality of immigrant children. We wanted to get their take on this constituency, their challenges and their contributions in Boulder County.
Dan's eyes narrow, his eyebrows converge when I ask him what he thinks of the immigration issue raging nationwide and in his Longmont backyard.
“I don’t get into the debate of the legal status of immigrants,” he says. “What I know is that we’re all human beings on this earth. We all need to take care of each other. That’s it. That’s what it’s about.”
Dan Benavidez is a long-time Longmont activist, former city council member and deputy mayor. His list of community leadership accomplishments and multicultural outreach is long and widely recognized. When he’s not working as a consultant with international trading company GWA Imports, he spends much time volunteering and educating Boulder County about Latino culture and customs as a way to improve understanding about the Latinos in the county, 80 percent of whom are foreign-born, most of them from Mexico.
“Because we come from Mexico, we bring our customs and culture with us. Many of us have what I call a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality, and there’s a reason for that,” he says. “Many of us come from a place where you don’t trust anything — not the political, educational or police system.”
Benavidez believes that this cultural mistrust is one of the key reasons why it’s difficult to get Latinos to participate on boards, city council or commissions. Instead, the tendency of this diverse Latino demographic is to only trust yourself, your family and your own neighborhoods. “But we have to develop the confidence, the trust in these systems that are important in a community,” he says.
Benavidez is a man with a kind heart who exudes a unique blend of charm and good will that has earned him recognition for effectively forging better relationships between Latinos and Anglos. His eyes sparkle when he describes achievements honored at “Si Se Puede” (Yes We Can) community parties that celebrate youth who turned their lives around as young adults despite earlier brushes with the law, teen pregnancy or limited socio-economic conditions.
“We honor the 4.0 GPA and honor students,” explains Benavidez, “and, indeed, we should. But who honors these kids who didn’t have access to the same opportunities? Our community does.”
He’s proud of the work his corps of teen “advisors” who, as part of a restorative justice initiative, and in partnership with EcoCycle, increased recycling in their Latino community by 130 percent. His eyes get misty when he speaks of the Latina madre in his neighborhood who, for years, has been walking his neighborhood with her son, ringing the bell and selling ice cream to neighbors from a small wheeled cart. He speaks of lifted spirits, after participating as a guest speaker at the graduation celebration for approximately 300 people, 90 percent of them Latinos, who were honored with certificates for completing 200 hours of ESL training at an adult education class in partnership with the St. Vrain Valley School District.
When he speaks to community groups and conducts trainings about this diverse Latino population that he calls a demographic within a demographic, Benavidez is deliberate when he names the three things he says are most important in the lives of the 46 million Hispanics in this country: God, family and friends.
“We take our relationships seriously,” Benavidez says. “If we’re going to really understand this Mexican demographic, we need to remember that cultural differences affect our community.”
Benavidez provides a collection of some of the highlights of this segment. In Longmont, approximately 20 percent of the city is made up of Mexicans. People who are highly family-oriented, loyal. Individuals who value respect, dignity, facesaving; these are important aspects in their culture.
Sense of time, says Benavidez, is different. For immigrants who have arrived in this country from low socio-economic backgrounds, “the only thing you think of is today, because it’s the only thing you can count on,” he says.
He looks me in the eye with a thoughtful stare when I ask him what he thinks about the relationship between undocumented immigrants and their economic impact in Boulder County. And while I’m at it, I venture once more to ask him what he thinks about the need for reform to our immigration system. “First, they’re here for no other reason than to escape the poverty and uncertainty of the life they and their families faced back home,” he says. Benavidez believes that immigration inequity is a problem we have created. “If the jobs are not being filled,” explains Benavidez, “then we blame the people we bring in to fill those jobs? Excuse me?” Immigration attorney Laurel Herndon of the nonprofit Legal Immigrant Center of Boulder County shares a similar view and provides historical background that we often fail to remember.
On the backs of immigrants
Does the economic boom of the ’90s ring a bell? “What we have to really contemplate is if this country would have had that undocumented boom without the undocumented worker,” she says.
What existed at the time was this pseudo-secret but quasi-open, alluring invitation that if you were willing to come to this country and work hard, often for minimum wage, there would be a way to find you a job. But it wasn’t just that there were jobs that people here didn’t want to do.
“It’s that there weren’t enough workers for all of the jobs that needed to be done,” she says. “And so now what we have in the community are all of those workers who helped us have that wonderful economic boom of the ’90s and, in essence, we’re now turning on them and treating them like disposable objects. We have to question the morality of doing that.”
Needless to say, this presents an ethical disconnect, and one that we often conveniently remember to forget. When we needed them, says Herndon, we pretended everything was fine. And now that we don’t?
“We treat it as a safety valve, as if we could just turn off the spigot and expect people to disappear. And that’s denying their very humanity, their right to be living, breathing individuals who have their own dreams and plans for the future.”
Human rights activist Betty Ball, who is coadministrator and coordinator of the Nonviolence Education Program for the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center (RMPJC), says it’s just plain wrong to treat undocumented Latinos unjustly, period.
“But especially considering they are in fact refugees from a global economy, which the U.S. is the main force of creating,” she says. “Many of these folks would rather be home, working their land, participating with their families, like they always have.
NAFTA and our multinational corporations have forced them to seek a new home in which to try to survive. And our country is making it incredibly difficult for them just to live.”
Who are these people? According to Ball, they’re people who represent a valuable addition to our community, who provide us with a richness of culture, a friendly nature, loyalty, a solid work ethic and a resilient willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure they can survive. They’re people like the ones Benavidez knows and ones Herndon sees as clients. They are people who have children in this country, kids born in this state who are U.S. citizens, kids who attend our schools.
“But as we put on the squeeze, we have children going hungry because their fathers are losing their jobs — jobs that they may have had for 10 years,” says Herndon. And all of a sudden we have this idea that we need to go after employers of undocumented immigrants. We’re again forgetting that they’re the same employers who were helping us in the ’90s. I think this has a negative impact on our community and a negative effect on our international soul.”
From a human rights perspective, Ball sees the Latino plight as one where a people who have been forced off their land, due mostly to limiting socioeconomic conditions, are forced to seek a home in a foreign country where they may or may not know one other person.
“They’re treated like second-class people,” she says. “Their rights are trodden upon by U.S. institutions. And with the economic crisis in this country and in the world, they’re scape-goated by people fearful of ending up with no job.”
Minding the young
We’ve reported before on the limbo status of approximately 65,000 young men and women who, upon graduating from high school, have little to look forward to because of their undocumented status and the restrictions placed on their future.
In a nutshell, this new generation of undocumented youth can’t drive legally or board a plane post-9/11, since those require proof of a federal identification document. They also can’t get a job since they can’t apply for a Social Security number.
At the federal level, The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which has been introduced every year since 2001 and has yet to pass, would allow kids who were brought to the States before the age of 16 a possible path to resident status since it was “no fault” of their own that their parents brought them to this country. Kids who’ve been in the U.S. for at least five years and stayed out of trouble would have two options to get resident status under the act: two years of college or two years of military service.
According to Erika Blum, volunteer advocate for VOICE (Voices of Immigrant Children for Education Equality) in Boulder, both the DREAM Act and tuition equity are needed. “Tuition equity would allow undocumented students who have been in Colorado for a minimum of three years to have residency, not legal status, allowing them to pay instate tuition,” she says. “Because if we don’t have tuition equity in Colorado, that’s just going to leave these kids the military.”
But it can’t stop there. Blum contends that out of the estimated 11 million to 20 million people who are undocumented, there are 2 million youth and children throughout the United States right now that don’t have a path to fix their status, and comprehensive immigration reform is needed. The bill she’s referring to is CIR-ASAP, which was introduced by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois. She thinks it’s a very good model for what’s needed, and VOICE has been actively lobbying for its passage since December of last year.
“The main issue with a broken immigration system for these young people is that by not having a way to fix their status, they’re constantly at risk of arrest and deportation,” says Blum. “VOICE members who speak publicly at our events are taking an incredible personal risk. People need to understand that the laws have to change before any of this can be solved. That’s key to comprehensive immigration reform.”
VOICE works closely with the Reform Immigration for America Campaign (RIFA) to put pressure on both the president and the Senate to get CIR-ASAP introduced.
Before a stone is cast
With fierce conviction, Betty Ball reminds us that no human is illegal. And 18-year-old Flor Marquez, a student at Metropolitan State College of Denver, a member of the recently formed Longmont Youth for Equality (LYFE) and an immigration advocate, believes wholeheartedly that if Anglos were put in a situation where their children were in danger and parents struggled to put food on the table for their kids, they would leave their home and move to another country where there was hope for a better life.
“The media often try to dehumanize the undocumented Latino to convince people that it’s OK to deport them,” says Marquez. “I’d like to remind people that we’re all immigrants. Anglo families were immigrants at one point, and they all came to the U.S. for a better future.”
If you’re undecided about where you stand on the plight of the undocumented immigrant, before you cast a stone in one pool or the other, consider what attorney Herndon wishes that people understood. “We have a difficult history when it comes to our immigration policy. It would behoove us to consider whether those policies have led to where we are today, and whether we think these policies were appropriate,” she says. “So in essence, we need to look in the mirror and see what part of the responsibility for there being 12 million to 15 million undocumented people here ... is ours.”
Herndon thinks we’re used to being pandered to by politicians who tell voters that we’re very good and never say to us, “You know, maybe you’re not so good; maybe you didn’t do your homework and hold your politicians accountable. Maybe you didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on because it was benefitting you; you were living the high life in the 1990s, and you didn’t take a serious look at whether the policies were sound,” she says.
I asked Marquez if she thought her generation still held hope for a future that consisted of full-on comprehensive immigration reform. “The people I speak with still have dreams about what they want to be,” she says. “Some still say, ‘I want to be a doctor,’ ‘I want to be a nurse,’ or, ‘When I’m famous.’ So there’s still that hope, especially with our group. Sometimes our energy gets burned out. But I feel like, overall, there’s still hope that our president will step up to the plate.”
Herndon also voices hope for what lies ahead, despite the uncertainty of that road.
“I think there’s always hope. The question is whether the Latinos’ confidence in us is rational,” she added.
“I’d like to think that it is, and that we can correct complicated policies that had unintended consequences and recognize that we have many good people in our community who could do so much more for their own families and for the community as a whole if we let them.”
When Marquez attended the last rally in Arizona a couple of weeks ago, she took a picture that moved her. It was a photo of the DREAM Act flag and a sign that said, “Obama, you are my Martin Luther King’s dream come true; now be brave and make our dreams come true.”
Ana Arias is principal of a multicultural consultancy and an entrepreneur of an eco- and socially inspired Colorado trading company of gourmet specialty foods & artisan products.
Respond: email@example.comCall to Action Resources Itching to roll up your sleeves and take a more active role in the plight of the undocumented Latino? Here are suggestions from our story sources to help you get started:
Get involved with Allies for Immigrant Rights; you can call Jorge de Santiago at El Centro Amistad firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Betty Ball of RMPJC at email@example.com.
Invite youth from VOICE to do a presentation for your community group or church by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the Reform for Immigration Act (RIFA) page and get involved reformimmigrationforamerica.org.
Support the DREAM Act by going to dreamact.info. Help educate friends and neighbors about injustices immigrants experience in our community.
Contact Intercambio de Comunidades at email@example.com. Check out Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition at www.coloradoimmigrant.org.
View the film Papers (VOICE will be showing this film in conjunction with Boulder Pride) at 6 p.m. on June 30 at the Boulder Public Library.
View films A Day without a Mexican, The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon and Refugees from the Global Economy.
Contact LYFE (Longmont Youth for Equality) to donate to its scholarship fund. LYFE is looking for private and public donations to launch a scholarship so 10 young adults can go to college (firstname.lastname@example.org).