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Raid to nowhere

Immigrant community recoils after recent incursions into private homes


Fr. Marco Salinas of Pueblo is      urging parishioners to - stay calm. - NAOMI ZEVELOFF
  • Naomi Zeveloff
  • Fr. Marco Salinas of Pueblo is urging parishioners to stay calm.

Last Saturday night in Pueblo, Our Lady of Mount Carmel church sat nearly empty. The priest earlier in the week had called a vigil for his immigrant parishioners, families who come by the hundreds to weekly masses.

But that evening, just three days after Pueblo's most wrenching raids in recent memory, the red brick church was quiet.

Three dozen people, only a few of them Latino, walked in as the sun went down. They passed by a white placard at the entranceway that read "STOP THE RAIDS!" in colored marker.

One congregant stood before the group and prayed for the community that had been "rent asunder" by the incursion. Earlier in the week, federal immigration police had apprehended at least 18 undocumented people from their homes.

The priest walked in as worshippers mumbled the "Our Father" in Spanish. Rising to the red and white pulpit, he addressed the tiny assemblage.

"I am the pastor, and people listen to my voice," said Fr. Marco Salinas. "When I invite people to come, we have close to a full church. People didn't come because they are afraid."

Though the raids ended May 23, the immigrant communities of Colorado Springs and Pueblo are still shot-through with trepidation.

Rumors circled in the days after: Immigration police are outside the laundromat; they're in the Mexican grocery store; they'll show up at the public schools. And to the sorrow of Fr. Salinas they will be at the Mount Carmel vigil.

Actually, though, businesses and community centers went untouched. The immigration police entered only private homes. That fact alone might explain the panic; if you're not safe in your own house, then where are you secure?

'Fugitive status'

One family lost an uncle to the raids. The Mexican national had lived in the United States illegally for 14 years and worked as a roofer. Though immigration officials told family members that he had defied a decade-old deportation order, the family says he was just three months away from entering the legalization process.

Officers came to his home at 5:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, when he was still in bed. He was taken to the Aurora detention center, leaving behind three sons. The youngest, a 17-year-old, should have had his high school graduation party last weekend. But the family canceled it in the wake of the raid.

Now, dread is swelling among extended family members. Many of them came to the country illegally. One 17-year-old at the vigil, the niece of the apprehended man, was only 2 when her parents carried her over the border. Her 12-year-old sister was born here; if her parents are taken, she'll be left behind.

"I was scared and I came to pray," said the girls' mother as they sat on the steps outside Mount Carmel. "We are scared they'll take us and take our life away."

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Carl Rusnok, the latest raids targeted people who already had been instructed to self-deport by a federal judge; of the 18 arrested immigrants, 10 were these so-called "fugitives." (There are 600,000 people with that status in the United States.) Thirteen came from Mexico, and one each from Poland, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Jamaica.

The Mexican Consulate and immigrant advocates in Colorado Springs and Pueblo contest the federal count, saying 27 people were apprehended. At least two of them brothers with wives and children of their own were arrested in Colorado Springs.

The recent raids indicate a stepped-up effort to remove fugitive immigrants from the country. The number of fugitive operations teams has more than tripled in recent years, as a result of the Patriot Act. There are currently 57 teams in the Department of Homeland Security; Rusnok says another 13 will be added soon.

Recurring raids

While last week's raid into private homes is thought to be the first of its kind in Southern Colorado, the state has weathered repeated incursions over the past several months. In December, a meatpacking plant in Greeley was raided and 261 people were arrested. That was part of a six-state sting that ended with 1,282 immigrants apprehended.

In April, federal immigration police entered a potato processing plant in the San Luis Valley and detained 19 individuals.

"It is like a humanitarian crisis following a natural disaster," says Julien Ross of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "You have the same needs, like children left without a mom or a dad. Sometimes the person making a salary to support the family is suddenly detained. The family is left in financial crisis as well."

Immigrant advocates don't yet know how many children have been affected in the latest raids. If both parents are deported, the Mexican Consulate in Denver takes custody of the children and may repatriate them.

At a recent meeting in Pueblo, consulate officials explained this and other procedures to a group of immigrants in Mount Carmel's basement. The workshop, planned for a month, happened to coincide with the end of the raids.

Consulate representatives spoke to the frazzled crowd, dodging "What now?" questions from immigrant advocates. Consul General Juan Carlos Mendoza criticized the feds for failing to tell their detainees that they had the right to contact his agency for legal advice.

Another Mexican official recommended submission in a raid. If immigration police come to your door, he told the audience, you should open it to avoid further trouble. An immigration lawyer disagreed, saying immigrants should keep their doors shut to anyone without a warrant.

Far-off reform

Now, immigrant advocates are addressing the closed-door question and other matters with their constituents. Catholic Charities in Pueblo is busy briefing immigrant parents, telling them to identify next-of-kin caretakers in case a raid rips them from their children.

The immigrants themselves have settled into an uneasy calm.

"Everything that happened is finished," says Fr. Salinas, who fielded 100 nervous phone calls over the three-day raid. "I think there will be no more of this kind of visitor. Everything will stay calm."

Yet for the 18 or more people who were detained, some of them locked up in the Aurora detention center, the tribulations have just begun.

And until Congress passes meaningful reform, these individuals and all paperless immigrants in the United States are left only with questions.

"Why can't the government come up with a process?" asked Luis Campos, an immigrant, at the Mexican Consulate meeting. "Why is it taking so long?"

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