Hidden in plain sight

Part 1: Advocating for local undocumented Latinos

Ana Arias

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%uFFFD 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.

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.

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.”

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

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

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.

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.”

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?

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

works closely with the Reform Immigration for America Campaign (RIFA)
to put pressure on both the president and the Senate to get CIR-ASAP

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

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.”

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.

The Future

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.

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.”

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.”

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: letters@boulderweekly.com

Call 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 info@elcentroamistad.org, or contact Betty Ball of RMPJC at rmpjc@earthlink.net.

Invite youth from VOICE to do a presentation for your community group or church by e-mailing bouldervoicegroup@gmail.com.

Visit the Reform for Immigration Act (RIFA) page and get involved reformimmigrationforamerica.org.

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 info@intercambioweb.org. 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.

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