In past years, Sandra Hernandez, executive director of the Colorado Springs nonprofit Centro de la Familia and a licensed clinical social worker, spent her days helping Hispanic and immigrant families with run-of-the-mill issues: parenting skills, marital problems, children struggling in school.
But recently, Centro has given its free or low-cost counseling to families with bigger troubles. Hernandez is seeing depressed kids, even suicidal kids, regularly. And they all have something in common: a parent or loved one who's been deported.
The trend began several years ago, after Colorado enacted several laws to crack down on illegal immigration, and it hasn't eased since. Hernandez says that now, she's worried about some politicians' campaign-trail promises to bring Arizona's rigid new immigration law to Colorado.
Were that to happen, she says, the stories she hears weekly will only get worse. And they're bad enough already.
In one recent case, a father was facing deportation, to the horror of his two young sons — both American citizens.
"You could tell that dad was very nurturing, spent a lot of time with his boys, played a lot of soccer with his boys, took them to the movies, that they went fishing ... and when dad was in jail for three months, these kids really deteriorated," Hernandez says. She adds, "The one little boy, the oldest one, he became suicidal; he was making suicidal threats. I think he was about 9 or 10 — 9 or 10 — and he was basically saying, 'I'm going to kill myself. I'm going to hurt myself. I don't want to live.'"
Imagine, Hernandez says, being a child afraid that someone would invade your home and take your mom or dad — or even you — away to some strange place. Mexico. A place you've heard about on the news, where heads show up without bodies, and young women are found in mass graves.
Most often, she says, kids she sees are worried about a father who's facing deportation, a process that can take months. (Hernandez only helps families facing deportation if the undocumented worker has not committed any crime.)
"What we're dealing with here is that there's no resolution to 'What's going to happen with my dad?'" she says. "'Are they going to come in the middle of the night and pick up my dad? Is my dad going to be taken while I'm in school, like happened last time? What's going to happen at the hearing? When my dad goes to the hearing, is he going to be allowed to come back home? Are we going to have to move to Mexico?'"
The ordeal leaves kids depressed, anxious, aggressive and unable to concentrate in school. They have nightmares, and self-esteem issues. Hernandez is currently working with an 8-year-old who stopped speaking when her father was picked up by authorities.
And there's another case that haunts her: an English-speaking 18-year-old girl, raised in America, who is stranded in Juarez. The girl's request for citizenship was denied. Not because she did anything wrong, but because the petition her parents filed on her behalf is no longer valid.
"This little girl comes to the United States," Hernandez explains. "She's 6 years old. The mom marries an American citizen, so mom becomes an American citizen and they petition for the little girl. Well, this takes forever, these things sometimes. So she hits the age of 18, and ... the hearing occurs after her 18th birthday, so they have to go to Ciudad Juarez [where the hearing is held]. And the judge said no. He said no to the petition because it's after her 18th birthday. So, they have to leave this 18-year-old girl in a boarding house in Juarez, where all the killings are going on with the women. You can imagine how these parents feel."
"We can do better than this."
The law of unintended consequences often plays out spectacularly when it comes to immigration enforcement.
But that hasn't stopped the laws from coming, as anger about immigration grows. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 2005, 300 bills were introduced by state legislatures nationwide; 38 laws were enacted. In 2009, that number ballooned to about 1,500 bills introduced, 222 enacted and 131 resolutions adopted.
Back in 2006, long before Arizona required police to question anyone they suspect of being in the U.S. illegally — a law whose most controversial elements are now tied up in the courts — Colorado was already passing some of the country's strictest immigration policy.
That year, one law required all state workers and contractors to prove their citizenship. Another required police officers to report any arrestee suspected of being an illegal immigrant to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) for possible deportation. (Domestic violence cases were excepted from the law since it's common for both the perpetrator and the victim to be arrested.) It also stated that all local law enforcement must cooperate with ICE.
While the current Legislature has been easier on immigrants, Gov. Bill Ritter is considering signing the state up for a federal program called Secure Communities. It would mandate a fingerprint check of anyone booked into any jail, to see if they are in the country illegally and if they have committed any crimes. Since first being implemented in Harris County, Texas in October 2008, Secure Communities has been adopted by portions of 27 states, and has screened about 3 million people.
The program has led to the deportation of more than 47,000. Of those, 9,800 were found to have committed Level 1 crimes (including the most serious crimes like homicide and rape), more than 19,000 committed Level 2 offenses (crimes like arson and vehicle theft), and more than 5,600 were convicted of Level 3 crimes (such as public drunkenness and property damage). About 12,300 had not been convicted of a crime.
Even if Ritter decides against Secure Communities, Republicans are promising that, if elected, they will bring ever-stricter immigration law to Colorado. Conservative gubernatorial candidates Scott McInnis, Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo have all spoken fondly of Arizona's tactics. Locally, both candidates for sheriff like Arizona's law, and both support a current program that the sheriff's office runs with ICE.
Of course, it wasn't so long ago that big-name Republicans and Democrats wanted "comprehensive immigration reform." Most envisioned this as providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States, and creating a more logical process for immigrants to come to the country — legally — in the future.
These days, few are willing to stick their necks out. Even Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the Republican Party's most vocal proponents of reform in past years, has changed his mind.
What's going on?
"I think that race is very heightened now, along with economic insecurity," says Eric Popkin, Colorado College associate professor of sociology. "If you perceive that lots of people coming from another country are here and taking jobs, when the unemployment rate is as high as it is, that fear of the other can be manipulated."
Of course, attitudes and realities don't always align.
Even as concerns about immigration spike, Popkin notes, immigration (as measured by border apprehensions) is down. In fact, in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2009, there were 556,041 border apprehensions. In 2008, there were 723,825. In 2000, there were 1,675,438.
Yes, some people say the decrease is due to increased border security. But Popkin isn't buying it.
"What some real noted studies have said is that it's the economy," he says. "When there's an upsurge of jobs, those apprehension rates go way up; when there are less jobs, they go way down. This has occurred cyclically for years."
Another note: Studies have shown that immigrants don't often compete with natives for jobs. To put it bluntly, immigrants work jobs Americans don't want. (To illustrate this point, the United Farm Workers of America launched their Take Our Jobs campaign, takeourjobs.org, wherein undocumented farm workers invite citizens and legal residents to replace them in the fields.)
Many economists, Popkin says, have long maintained that immigrants are necessary for the economy, especially as Baby Boomers age. They work lower-paying jobs. They pay into Social Security. And they buy things, including cars and houses.
Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress and the American Immigration Council released studies estimating that comprehensive immigration reform, as described above, would increase the U.S. gross domestic product by at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
In Colorado, immigrants keep tourism going in small mountain towns with pricey real estate; they often drive hours each day to and from minimum-wage positions in ski towns. Migrants also work the fields and grunt construction jobs.
It's a similar story elsewhere. In Arizona, for instance, Popkin says many migrants work as home health care aides, assisting the huge population of senior citizens. In 2007, Forbes named the profession one of the worst paid in America.
Illegal immigrants also usually live in, and often support, households in which some members are legal. Take away the breadwinner, Popkin notes, and those left behind could be forced to turn to welfare and other social programs.
Popkin acknowledges that the overall benefit most of America derives from immigration may not exist in the most crowded border counties, where large numbers of immigrants can drain resources.
"I understand the anger at the lack of federal response to the immigration issue," he says. "I understand where it comes from. Those costs are real. And if you're a rancher whose land straddles the border and people are crossing, and then you have the drug [smuggling] issue — which I separate from the immigration issue — yeah, I understand that people see it as a problem. And the answer, of course, is to regulate that flow through comprehensive immigration reform."
Feeling the impact
While it seems much of the country is screaming for deportations, there is resistance.
Before Arizona's law was put on hold by a judge (when the U.S. Department of Justice questioned its constitutionality), opponents hit the street in full force. Brown-skinned citizens left their homes without identification, daring police to arrest them for suspicion of being here illegally.
Locally, the response has been more muted. But state Rep. Dennis Apuan says he's hearing worries.
"District 17 is largely made up of communities of color," he says. "So I have a lot of Hispanics in my district, so I understand that they would be against something like Arizona [has]."
The American Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign against that law. Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein says if it's allowed to stand, or even spread to other states, Americans would be living in something akin to a police state, afraid to take their dog for a walk without identification for fear of being swept up and deported. That's especially true, he says, since local law enforcement don't go through the special training that federal immigration agents must undergo.
"There's a tremendous chance that [police] will rely on their own biases," he says, adding, "It's the kind of policy that we've traditionally abhorred when its carried out in totalitarian countries."
State laws related to immigration have ballooned in recent years. Here's how the National Conference of State Legislatures has tallied them up.
• In 2005, 300 bills were introduced; 39 laws were enacted and six vetoed.
• In 2006, 570 bills were introduced; 84 laws were enacted and six vetoed.
• In 2007, 1,562 bills were introduced; 240 laws were enacted and 12 vetoed.
• In 2008, 1,305 bills were introduced; 206 laws and resolutions were enacted and three vetoed.
• In 2009, approximately 1,500 bills were introduced; 353 laws and resolutions were enacted and 20 vetoed.