Khin Than translates the panel discussion on immigrant rights, policies and mental health for the Burmese speaking attendants on Thursday Dec. 01, 2016 at Aurora Central High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

AURORA |As they do several evenings every year, the group of immigrants and their advocates gathered this week during a steady rain at the GEO immigration detention facility in north Aurora.

This week’s rally had a slightly different feel because it came just a few days after the Trump administration backed dramatic cuts to legal immigration. Normally attendees call for an end to detentions that they say break up immigrant families and terrorize immigrant communities. Those proposed cuts would make unifying families even more difficult and would prioritize English-speaking immigrants over those who don’t speak English. Jordan Garcia of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that advocates for local immigrants and organizes the regular rallies at GEO, said last week’s proposal is one of many stoking fear in the immigrant community.

That proposal, Garcia said, has some immigrant families reaching out to advocacy groups like AFSC wondering whether it’s worth the trouble to try to shepherd their loved ones living abroad through an already-challenging immigration system.

“It feels like a witch hunt sometimes,” he said as rally goers gathered in a circle near the entrance of the detention facility.

Concerns about the future of US immigration policy are especially acute in Aurora, where one in five people are foreign born and a language other than English is spoken in about a third of the homes, according to city statistics.

So each time the Trump administration floats a policy change — be it a ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, a pricey border wall or last week’s proposal to limit legal immigration — it sends ripples not just through the immigrant community, but across Aurora’s business and political landscape.

Poor and uneducated immigrants have come to Aurora to succeed

Nebiyu Asfaw feels those ripples emanating from Washington D.C. when the Trump administration talks about immigration policy. An Ethiopian immigrant, Asfaw is a community leader among the large population of Ethiopians that now call Aurora home. He’s one of the main organizers behind the long-running Taste of Ethiopia festival.

The constant hostile rhetoric about immigrants, whether here illegally or legally, had already unnerved many in the community. But the new proposed changes that would put an emphasis on English proficiency, college degrees, and give less deference to family reunification, directly affects Ethiopian families in Aurora.

Asfaw said Ethiopian asylum seekers here legally in the states can wait for years and even decades to try and bring their families here for reunification. The new rules being proposed would make that long process even harder to complete.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re welcomed. Some of us have been living here for 30, 40 years,” Asfaw said. “It doesn’t feel like the America we’ve known.”

Asfaw said members of his community would be especially adversely affected by the proposed focus put on technical degrees and English language proficiency. And those rules don’t reflect the reality of immigrants and how they quickly integrate into the community once they arrive.

“Speaking for my community, folks that immigrate here are quick to learn English, very quick to learn the way of American life with the language, the culture,” Asfaw said. “Over the past 30 to 40 years, our community has been successful economic generators. We’ve created small businesses that have created job opportunity, generating revenue for the city and the state. We’ve been one of the contributors in the economic growth we’re witnessing in the state. Putting in barriers that would limit the options to reunite families is very unfortunate and very unnecessary.”

The Trump-backed policy changes — which were introduced by Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sonny Perdue of Georgia — have been dubbed the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or the RAISE Act.

Jobs are critical in the issue

Supporters say the measure would limit the number of low-skilled immigrants, freeing up jobs for low-skilled American workers.

“Seeing the President standing with the bill’s sponsors at the White House gives hope to the tens of millions of struggling Americans in stagnant jobs or outside the labor market altogether,” Roy Beck, president and founder of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA said in a statement.

He also said the group’s polling showed Americans believe “mass immigration creates unfair competition for American workers.”

Other anti-immigration groups echoed those comments.

“The unremitting increase in unskilled immigrants has resulted in depressed wages and working conditions for Americans already struggling to make it in our rapidly changing economy,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as a hate group.

But Nicole Melaku, executive director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said low-skilled immigrants and low-skilled Americans are not in competition with each other.

“There aren’t people lined up to work in onion farms in southern Colorado,” she said.

And while the Denver Metro area doesn’t have a lot of agriculture, it does have a large hospitality and construction industry. Those industries would be hit just as hard, Melaku said.

“Those industries require a workforce that is willing and able,” she said, adding that the Colorado economy relies just as much on people who work in construction and service as it does on the people working more high-skilled jobs.

“One part of the economy does not exist without the other,” Melaku said. “A merit system would eliminate entire parts of our workforce.”

Merit system draws critics

Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll blasted the proposed changes.

“This policy would seriously cripple every economic sector we have in this country,” Carroll said. “The immigrant contribution is sometimes up and center and sometimes it’s in the background.”

Carroll described the legislation as a self-inflicted wound, both financially and culturally.

“It (the legislation) skews who we would be welcoming into our country — that means we’re no longer a country of opportunity,” Carroll said.

Colorado’s economy has been impacted positively by both skilled and unskilled immigrants, Carroll said, emphasizing how important unskilled labor has been to the country’s cash engines.

On the family front, Carroll said immigrants being unable to bring their families to the U.S. would significantly impact the metro area.

“For Aurora, 1 in 5 people in our city speak another language and many have families in other parts of the world facing hostile regimes,” Carroll said. “Getting families together is going to be harder.”

By no means is the current system a winner, Carroll said. There is lots of work to be done on immigration, but this proposed policy is “taking a broken immigration system and making it worse.”

“I just think overall this is at odds of who we are as Americans,” Carroll said.

Colorado GOP avoids specifics

Colorado GOP Chairman Jeff Hays said the state party didn’t want to get into the weeds about specific changes to the immigration policy proposed in the current bill or in subsequent proposals. But he said Trump won because of his focus on putting the good of America at the forefront of every decision, and any new immigration policy should reflect that focus.

“We leave policy nitty-gritty to our elected officials and don’t know the exact number of visas that would be ideal,” Hays said. “But the Republican Party does, in principle, support an immigration policy that puts American society and American interests ahead of all other considerations, that asks, first and foremost, ‘What’s good for America?’ Because he shares that starting point, Trump’s approach to immigration resonates with his base.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman said he was uneasy with cutting the number of visas available and didn’t think there should be a language requirement put in place for immigration purposes. He did want to see a focus on skills like the STEM field where employers have a hard time filling positions. Coffman also said there needed to be a balance between bringing in skilled labor with family unification in immigration policy, details which he hadn’t seen yet in the new proposals.

“Additionally, there is a need to reform the temporary worker program visa, as we also have a shortage of workers for such industries like agriculture and tourism,” Coffman said in an email exchange.

Search for workers at risk

In Aurora, business leaders say local companies are struggling to fill jobs across the spectrum, whether they require high-skilled workers or low-skilled workers.

Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, said local companies tell him they are struggling to find skilled workers like electricians, plumbers and carpenters. Those vacancies, he said, mean jobs that should be done in six months often take nine months or more to complete.

But it’s not just those companies that are struggling to find workers in an economy with record-low unemployment rates, he said. The service and hospitality industries also need workers.

“You can see a help wanted sign in almost every window these days,” he said.

And many point to a surprising reason, Hougen said: Fewer immigrants are coming to Aurora because other countries, including Mexico, have stronger economies than they once did.

“We’ve actually seen the reverse, some people are going to back to Mexico that were long-time employees here,” he said.

At the rally outside GEO this week, Garcia said immigrants feel a pretty constant wave of attack in the United States.

“There is always a lot to talk about,” he said.

And because immigration rules are complicated — he said experts tell him only tax law is more complicated than immigration law — it’s easy for people to be scared by the tangle of laws.

But there have been some positives, he said, including two high-profile local cases where immigrants who sought sanctuary in a Denver church were eventually granted a stay of their pending deportations. And while the administration has floated several ideas that have worried local immigrants, Garcia said they take some solace in the fact that the White House hasn’t exactly been effective when it comes to making laws. He pointed to stalled health care reform which, even with a GOP House and Senate, Trump administration has not been able to secure enough votes for, despite full-throated support from the White House.

The RAISE Act appears to have similarly dim political prospects. Just two senators signed on as sponsors so far and even some in the GOP, including Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, have loudly opposed it.

“They aren’t able to put much into policy,” he said.