Fear is real, immigrants say at forum

Ryan Summerlin

Immigrants and local educators Tuesday described an atmosphere of fear in the immigrant community at the Post Independent’s third Common Ground forum of 2017, while calling for a national immigration policy that meets Garfield County’s economic needs.

Junior Ortega, a Garfield County employee and a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was among the panelists. Known as DACA, this Obama-era executive order protected young immigrants brought into the U.S. illegally. President Donald Trump recently rescinded that protection and gave Congress six months to pass a replacement.

Ortega called for comprehensive immigration reform, including passage of the Dream Act, which would provide protections and a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.

But he added, “I don’t want to be used as a bargaining chip.”

The climate of fear among immigrants is very real, Ortega said at the event, which was attended by about 80 people at the Glenwood Springs Branch Library.

Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition has set up a hot line for immigrants to report crimes, and Ortega said a lot of callers are people who got a simple traffic ticket and want to know if it’s safe to go pay it. They ask, “If I go pay it, will ICE be there?” said Ortega, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “That’s the fear that we’re talking about.

“It’s that fear that keeps us in the shadows … it’s the fear that we’re going to go and not come back and not see our families again. Because the system is broken at the federal level, and Garfield County isn’t doing anything about it to fix it.”

Richard Gonzalez, general counsel for Colorado Mountain College, and Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Rob Stein called for a replacement of DACA. And both reassured immigrant students that their institutions would protect their information and their right to an education regardless of legal status.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said that fears of a mass crackdown and deportation of undocumented immigrants simply isn’t going to happen. “It’s not possible unless we become a totalitarian state, and we have a dictator; it’s not going to happen,” he said.

In response, Stein raised the spectre of the Holocaust, its gradual seep into German political culture as a parallel.

“I’m going to say this as a private citizen, not as a public employee,” Stein said. “What you said is very much what my stepfather’s brother said in 1933 in Poland. And he’s the one who was burned in Auschwitz.

“I’m sorry to say that if there’s not a similar climate of fear, that we don’t have efforts at a more totalitarian government and that there isn’t already a crackdown on immigration, what’s the repeal of DACA? We’re already there.”

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario reiterated that his department and local law enforcement across the country cannot enforce federal immigration law, and that they want victims of crimes to feel comfortable going to authorities for help.

“We want you to reach out to us, so we can provide you the services you deserve as a victim in our community,” he said.

Vallario said that his officers do not go running to ICE just because they learn someone is here illegally.

“That’s not how we operate,” he said. “That’s not even what ICE wants; that’s not their priority with the resources they have available.”

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have any special agreements with ICE, but there is some level of cooperation required by law, such as sharing information on who is in the jail, what they’re held on and when they’ll get out, he said. “Other than that, we share any information like we would with any other law enforcement agency.”

If the FBI comes and asks to interview an inmate in the jail, “I say absolutely,” said Vallario. “And it’s no different whether it’s ICE or the local police department.

“I don’t care about immigration status with regard to my responsibility as a law enforcement officer,” said the sheriff.

Immigrants and advocates in attendance complained that immigration officers had pursued their suspects in courthouses.

“I don’t really have a lot of means to prohibit ICE from going into the courthouse, nor would I,” said Vallario. Again, the sheriff likened it to any other federal law enforcers going into the courthouse.

Much of the debate also centered on whether anything actually can be done at the local level, or whether the best shot is to focus on the national immigration policy.

Mark Gould, the owner of Gould Construction who has long been vocal in supporting immigrant rights, asserted that members of Congress know exactly how to fix the immigration system. Gould has called for a combination of closed borders and comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship but said members of Congress afraid of the far right don’t want their vote on the record.

Imagine if everyone in this room had a warrant out for their arrest; that’s what immigrants live with every day, Gould said.

“We’re not going to fix it as Garfield County. It has to be the nation letting them come out of the shadows,” he said.

However, immigrant Yesenia Arreola, a naturalized citizen, voiced skepticism about whether immigrants would trust such a move to “bring them out of the shadows” after seeing DACA rescinded and all its recipients put under threat. She pressed for a local solution.

“We can’t just say this is a national issue, and Garfield County can’t fix it. Then why are there local counties that are doing something about it? Why are there … states that are addressing the issue, that are creating that trust in the communities?” she asked.

Jankovsky directly rejected suggestions that Garfield County should follow the lead of Pitkin County and become a sanctuary for immigrants. “Garfield County is not going to put in place a sanctuary city or a sanctuary county policy. We do believe … that we need to follow the rules and the laws” of the U.S. and Colorado.

“To a large extent that’s political correctness, sanctuary city and so forth. But we want (Sheriff Vallario) to be able to do this job,” said Jankovsky.

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