It’s an immigrant paradox in Aurora these days under an energized Trump Administration.
Many immigrants in the region say they live in a perpetual state of increasing fear in a place they came while fleeing a life of fear and worry in their native countries.
The fear comes from President Donald Trump’s racist and provocative rhetoric about immigrants and especially undocumented immigrants, and especially those who are Hispanic.
New fears come from threats of violence against Hispanic immigrants, and especially since the El Paso mass shooting two weeks ago. There, a gunman traveled hundreds of miles to the Texas-Mexico border to seek out Mexican victims.
The fears focus on deportation, losing family members and friends, losing jobs, harassment and what might happen to children when parents are taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Edgardo Borja said he and his wife never leave the house without worrying about being accosted some how.
Borja is from El Salvador. He’s lived and worked in Aurora years, legally, under a program dubbed “temporary” refugee assistance. His entire life is here. He’s married to a woman who does not have the same green-light to stay.
“There is a constant sense of nervousness,” Edgardo said. They recently canceled a trip to New Jersey to see family. The same for a trip to California. Edgardo has also canceled plans to go to El Salvador to see family, fearing he won’t be able to get back into the United States.
The thought of a possible traffic stop creates nightmares, even though Aurora and Denver police say they will not enforce immigration law or even ask about immigration status.
The couple and many others said they even had trepidation about turning out for Aurora’s annual GlobalFest last week, seeing it as a prime opportunity for illegal immigrants to be snagged in an ICE raid.
“It is a concern,” Edgardo said, but they needed to be there to support a community that famously supports immigrants from all over the world.
Manuel Castillo, El Salvadoran consul, based in Aurora, said the recent events have thousands in the region on edge.
“Our people are quite concerned about what is happening with the raids,” Castillo said, “but also with the shootings in Texas.”
He said anyplace with crowds, and especially crowds of Latinos, raises alarm. He said it’s created a unique problem for an annual Central American festival in September.
Planners and attendees are concerned, saying that the community needs police presence during the celebration.
“I think people are afraid, but at the same time they want to lead the lives that they usually do. They are trying to find a balance,” Castillo said.
He said he spoke this week with an El Salvadoran man who was sending wiring money to family when he was confronted by someone yelling at him that “he is not an American” and demanding to know why he was here.
“I don’t know if it is because of the raids or what happened in Texas,” Castillo said, but such encounters happen with increasing frequency.
Fear of deportation is fresh, but it isn’t new for many Aurora-area immigrants.
One woman at the Village Exchange Center — which offers services to area immigrants and refugees — spoke with Sentinel Colorado on the condition she not be identified, for fear of identifying herself to immigration authorities. She said she’s been afraid since her family came here 15 years ago. Her mother brought them north, looking for a better life than in Mexico City. A native Mexican, she and her husband are undocumented, but they have three American children in Aurora schools.
She has been in Aurora longer than many Denver transplants she meets these days.
But she doesn’t stick her neck out in the community. After she was mugged in a metro-area Walmart, she refused to tell police. Another time, when her car slid through snow into another, she was terrified that the mistake would land her back across the border and separated from her children. Aurora police assured her that would not happen, she said.
She knows of other undocumented people in Aurora, she said, who refused to go to police even after becoming victims of serious crimes.
She fears she’d be separated from her family after one slip-up. So she drives as perfectly as she can, interacts as little as possible with government and flies under the radar.
Alejandra Ospina, operations manager at the Village Exchange, translated the woman’s Spanish in an interview.
Ospina is from Colombia, but working in the country legally. She works daily with refugees and immigrants from all over the world.
“They have an isolated life, in their own group,” she said of undocumented Aurorans.
Ospina said undocumented immigrants and documented workers, like herself, regularly feel fear and rejection in today’s political climate.
“The common factor is fear more than anything else,” she said. “They make us feel that we don’t belong.”
FEAR IN A FEARLESS PLACE
It’s not just Aurora. Illegal immigrants across the region and the country make it clear that almost the very day after President Donald Trump was elected, their tenuous world in the United States started becoming scarier.
It’s only gotten worse, immigrants and their advocates say.
Between raids, rhetoric and now mass shootings, the barometer of worry continues to rise.
Aurora Congressman Jason Crow said in the weeks after the El Paso shooting he and his staff have experienced an uptick in stories from immigrant and minority constituents feeling more targeted.
“Many of them for the first time feel that there’s a real threat of violence based on the color of their skin,” he said. “That’s I guess part of a larger trend I’ve noticed over the last year, that those communities have started to tell me they are the subject of overt racism and harassment in a way that they haven’t been.”
Crow recalled a constituent, who Crow said was an immigrant, recently telling him that he’s been called derogatory names while at the grocery store, “things that he hasn’t been called in two decades of being here,” Crow said.
As a response, Crow said he wants immigrants and people of color to know that his office is a safe space for them.
“We’re a community that supports you. There are a lot of people that have your back and will continue to fight for you,” he said. “We are a community that respects and supports its refugees and immigrants and their values and contributions. We’re going to fight for you.”
The fear has also rushed downstream to a common nexus in the Aurora region’s, schools.
It’s not new. Fear has been building and hovering over community schools from the day Trump was elected, school officials and parents say.
Just months after his election, a group of about 50 immigrants filled an Aurora Public Schools board room to talk about how fear and immigration — legal or otherwise — seem to go hand in hand in a country built on immigration.
“How can my friend’s dreams come true if they have an everyday fear of getting deported?” Nepalese immigrant and Aurora Central High School student Anjali Bhujel told board members.
Children born here as instant U.S. citizens fret constantly about becoming orphans after their parents are picked up by immigration police and either jailed or deported.
Recent pictures of hysterical children of parents taken away during the Mississippi ICE raids only makes the fears worse and more real.
Aurora police have tried to counter that fear with public messages that they aren’t immigration officers. Cops and other experts say there’s real danger for the entire community if illegal immigrants are driven deeper into the shadows by fear.
For years, Aurora police have staunchly underscored the department’s stance that local officers will neither act as immigration officials nor actively help federal authorities detain people suspected of illegally living in the country.
In June, Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz re-released a public statement emphasizing that local cops cannot act as immigration agents.
“Aurora police officers do not have the authority to detain a person based on their immigration status,” Metz said in the statement, which garnered more than 1,800 likes on Facebook. “They also do not have the authority to investigate or enforce federal immigration laws. They do not and will not ask a person about their immigration status. It is not our practice to report to other agencies who we speak with or what their immigration status is for being in this country or in our city.”
Metz has repeatedly attempted to assure the city’s immigrant populations that they will not be penalized or detained for reporting crimes in Aurora.
In the past, Metz has said the only occasions during which APD personnel interact with ICE is when officers provide support during potentially dangerous interactions with illegal immigrants, if an interaction leads to a violent response, or during joint investigations of known violent offenders who are also known to be undocumented immigrants. Metz went on to say APD does not typically help ICE agents with so-called “round-ups” of illegal immigrants.
However, city officials will endeavor to determine a person’s immigration status if that person is arrested and booked into the city jail.
All individuals placed in custody in the city’s holding facility are fingerprinted, whether they are documented or not.
From there, the information is sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which then shares the information with ICE. The enforcement agency then has a window of four hours when they are allowed to pick up a detainee. If they miss that window of time, the detainee is released or transferred just like anyone else.
Immigrants say that’s cold comfort when they drop off their children at school, unsure what would happen if they’re picked up in an ICE raid.
“I know how it feels to live in fear,” a woman named Cynthia told school board members. She grew up in Aurora schools, went to college at the University of Northern Colorado and then became a teacher. She now watches classrooms full of other children and parents suffering the same anxiety she did as a child.
“I remember being distracted and wondering if my parents would be there when I got home.”
School officials then passed measures to ensure APS employees and officials don’t provide information to ICE officials, and that schools have plans in place in case a mass raid were to take place.
U.S. schools cannot discriminate against students because of their national origin, keeping classrooms and other benefits such as free lunches open to undocumented students who qualify.
The schools are also essentially safe spaces from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials, dubbed “sensitive” spaces, similar to churches, that ICE says it avoids.
In 2017, Aurora Public Schools pioneered a policy delaying ICE agents entering schools except in “extremely rare situations” to protect students from the agency.
School board director Deborah Gerkin, who then was a retired APS principal just considering a run for the school board, told the existing board she’s seen firsthand the panic this can cause and what it does to parents.
She, too, recalled the infamous Swift meat-packing plant raid in Greeley about 10 years ago. Hundreds of illegal immigrants were rounded up while their children were in school. The panic swiftly spread to Aurora, and to her school.
She heard commotion outside her office and when she went to investigate, one woman dropped to her knees and “begged me to keep her children safe” if she were rounded up and sent to an ICE prison.
The fear when Trump was elected was real. Now, it’s palpable, immigrants and others say.
This week, Gerkin said Superintendent Rico Munn recently circulated a memo again to school staff, reminding them of APS policy. She said some parents and students are as scared as ever because of the political climate.
“I’m sure that anxiety is just as high and would be if there was another raid,” Gherkin said.
Cherry Creek School District officials did not immediately respond to request for comment, but spokeswoman Abbe Smith said the district is writing a letter to staff about immigration issues this week.
WEALTHIER AND WHITER
Regardless of whether it’s intentional, the Trump administration is on a course to remake the face of immigration in America in ways that would turn it whiter and wealthier.
It is a dramatic editing of the American catechism welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, to “your tired and your poor who can stand on their on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.”
The administration official who offered that rewrite, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, affirmed last week that his words were intentional, including his added notion that the poem was written for Europeans. He said in a statement that his agency “is tasked with enforcing the law, not a poem.”
It was another defiant step in Trump’s long march to change the way the nation thinks about immigrants, an approach he hopes will win over enough voters to earn him a second term. He’s added another layer of certainty that the 2020 campaign will be deeply rooted in a cultural battle over national identity.
But he faces an accompanying danger that his hard line will further energize Democrats, alienate suburban women and prompt a swell of newly registered Latino voters. Democrats have been quick to charge that the enforcement pivot the administration announced — to block many legal immigrants who receive public benefits from being granted green cards — was rooted in sowing racial animus.
It’s another shot fired toward immigrants creating fear and uncertainty here in Aurora, where the immigrant status of many families varies.
“This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people,” tweeted former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate.
The president and his aides “have further stained this country’s tradition as a beacon of hope for immigrants,” said Hispanic Federation President José Calderón. “Shame on them.”
Depending on how the new “public charge” rules are applied, experts say that changes intended to predict whether applicants are likely to use public benefits could dramatically alter the makeup of immigrants eligible for green cards or permanent residency in the U.S. by taking into account their incomes, ages and employment histories.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has joined those of more than a dozen other states suing the Trump administration over the change in policy.
According to a study by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, the rules would likely reduce immigration from Mexico and Central America, while increasing it from other regions, especially Europe. The income standards, in particular, could lead to reduced rates for Mexican, Central American, Caribbean, African and Asian applicants. Canadian and Austrian applicants could likely benefit, as could applicants from non-white countries like India and Japan.
The study also found the new rules would have put most recent legal permanent residents at risk of denial, with 69 percent of the past five years’ green card recipients displaying at least one of the “negative factors” identified by the government. The rules are also likely to make it harder for the parents of U.S. citizens to join their children in the country because they’re more likely to be older, not working and facing health challenges.
“America’s always been a path to success for millions of people and now America wants to make it so that it’s a path only for those who have already succeeded,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council.
Trump rose to the White House fanning unease about an increasingly diverse nation, where demographic and immigration trends are projected to make whites a minority in less than two decades. As Trump told it, immigrants were stealing his supporters’ jobs and driving down their wages, denying working class whites opportunities for success.
Immigrants were effective scapegoats, especially in towns in the industrial heartland and other economically depressed areas of the country still reeling from job losses as the rest of the country was experiencing an economic recovery. And Trump has continued to push that message.
His administration has tried to severely limit the number of migrants claiming asylum in the U.S. and has dramatically reduced refugee admissions — with further reductions possible next month when refugee limits for next year are unveiled. He has also endorsed legislation that would slash legal immigration rates, while at the same time pushing for a wholesale overhaul of the kinds of immigrants who should be permitted, favoring those with certain skills and high-wage job offers over those with family ties to the U.S.
Blunted by Democrats in Congress, he has turned to administrative action, with mixed results withstanding legal challenges.
In addition to the changes he’s made and proposed, Trump has spoken disparagingly about immigration from majority black and Hispanic countries, including calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals when he launched his 2016 campaign. Last year, he privately branded Central American and African nations as “shithole” countries and he suggested the U.S. take in more immigrants from European countries like predominantly white Norway.
Immigration official Cuccinelli seemed to limit the reach of the Statue of Liberty poem in an interview with CNN last week. He said it was referring to “people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”
His own agency seems to like the original. In its “citizen almanac” for distribution to new Americans, the agency applauds the poem as a beacon for “the millions of immigrants who came to America in search of freedom and opportunity.”
NEW FEARS: TARGETED SHOOTINGS
When Michelle Otero arrived at an Albuquerque art show featuring Mexican-American women, the first thing she did was scan the room. Two exits. One security guard.
Then she thought to herself: If a shooter bursts in, how do my husband and I get out of here alive?
Otero, who is Mexican-American and Albuquerque’s poet laureate, had questioned even attending the crowded event at the National Hispanic Cultural Center a day after 22 people were killed in a shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart.
That shooting and an earlier one in Gilroy, California, killed nearly two dozen Latinos. The violence has some Hispanics looking over their shoulders, avoiding speaking Spanish in public and seeking out escape routes amid fears they could be next.
Aurora Congressman Jason Crow says he increasingly hears from fearful Hispanics from Aurora about worry.
The shooting and equally unnerving recent ICE raids come against the backdrop of racially charged episodes that include then-candidate Trump referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists”.
Aurora Latino community activists say anyone would be hard pressed to find a Latino resident who hasn’t been called out for their language, race or culture.
“It’s almost like we’re hitting a climax of some kind,” said Jennifer Garcia, a 23-year-old University of New Mexico student originally from Mexico. “Some people, especially our elders, don’t even want to leave the house or speak Spanish.”
Across the Colorado region, Latinos have taken to social media to describe being on edge, worrying that even standing in line for a Taco Tuesday special outside a food truck or wearing a Mexican national soccer team jersey might make them a target.
Although the motive in the Gilroy shooting is unknown, authorities say the El Paso shooting suspect, who is white, confessed to targeting people of Mexican descent. The suspect also is believed to have written an anti-Hispanic rant before gunning down mostly Latino Walmart shoppers with an AK-47-style rifle. The attack has rattled a city that has helped shape Mexican-American life in the U.S. for generations.
The manifesto included anti-immigrant and anti-Latino language similar to Trump’s.
Garcia said she has seen widespread anxiety among immigrants since Trump was elected in November 2016 and the angst after the shootings “has reached another level.”
Alexandro Jose Gradilla, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University, Fullerton, said he and his wife, also a professor, “know anyone can look up a class schedule and start shooting.”
“White supremacists don’t see the difference between immigrants to fourth-generation Latinos,” he said. “They see brown.”
Carlos Galindo-Elvira of the Anti-Defamation League in Arizona said that, in the days after the El Paso shooting, the organization received calls from concerned Hispanics seeking information about white supremacy and the website where the manifesto was posted.
Some worried whether a mass shooting could happen in Phoenix, a city more than 40% Hispanic, said Galindo-Elvira.
“What I tell people is that we cannot live in fear, but we also have to be vigilant and be aware of the rhetoric and our surroundings,” he said.
He said information is important and since last year the league has been training officials at Mexican consulates across the U.S. about how to report hate crimes against their citizens amid the heightened anti-Latino rhetoric.
Still, Erik Contreras, 36, the grandson of Panamanian and Mexican immigrants, said the recent violence has left him nervously checking parking lots where he worries attackers could hit.
Otero, the poet, said she tries to make sense of the attacks by replaying facts in her mind.
“This is someone who drove nine hours to kill people like me,” she said of the El Paso shooter, holding back tears. “I don’t know what to make of that.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.