THE BUZZ: Humanity vs. Legality

By on May 2, 2017

Sifting through the barriers to citizenship that Jackson’s undocumented immigrants face.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Hector Flores* spent the first six years of his life in Tlaxcala, Mexico. He says his parents struggled to find work and he remembers his father crying the day the family had just 10 pesos left. But his father promised the family he wouldn’t let them starve. Soon after, they left for Jackson Hole. Although it has been 16 years, Flores can’t become a legal resident.

At six years old, Flores says he was given a label he didn’t understand or choose. He became “an illegal alien in a foreign country.” Wyoming is his home, but no matter how hard he and his family work, they feel the weight of that categorization: “We will care for your children, cook your food, mow your lawns, build your homes and pick your crops … but at the same time you just feel like an outsider, you feel useless no matter how hard you try, you will always be a wetback.”

Elisabeth Trefonas, an immigration attorney with a law practice in Jackson, calls what Flores is facing “the 10-year problem,” an immigration catch-22 that makes it extremely difficult for undocumented residents to become documented.

In fact, seeking documentation for these folks is near impossible, even for those who desperately want legal status. “I believe the system is set up to have undocumented people working illegally,” Trefonas said. “This could be fixed if we wanted it fixed.” She argues that the country and county rely on the cheap, loyal labor of undocumented workers who can’t vote, who tolerate low wages and difficult work environments, and who pay taxes and contribute to Social Security but can’t benefit from it.

“We need to be honest about the labor we need … we like cheap labor,” she said.

Employers face few consequences for employing undocumented people. The burden falls on their employees. Trefonas says that many of the people she represents have lived and worked in Jackson for a long time. “They have more claim to be here than I do,” she said.

However, many have no path to claiming legal residence.

‘I need you and I’ll pay you well’

In the mid-90s, there was an influx of immigrants to Jackson, the majority from Tlaxcala, Mexico. For years, these workers were able to legally go back and forth across the border, accessing work visas. In 2001 after the September 11 attacks, in most respects the border closed behind them, Trefonas said. It was no longer possible to move freely between countries.

Now, if a worker in the United States is undocumented for six months, they have to leave for three years to be eligible to seek any form of documentation again. If someone is undocumented for more than a year, they have to leave the United States for 10 years to regain eligibility. Prior to 2001, immigrants could pay a $1,000 fine to avoid the 10-year penalty. Since this legal provision expired, Trefonas says many Jackson residents have become trapped in a bind: “There is no way out of the system.”

Most undocumented residents in Wyoming have families and careers they can’t leave for three years, let alone 10. Therefore, most stay and live in limbo.

Another policy change in 2007 also impacted immigrants, making it more difficult to obtain work visas.

Trefonas explained that at that time, the United States relied heavily on workers on visas from all over the world. Teton County specifically relied on workers with visas from Mexico. Each year, 65,000 new work visas were provided to incoming laborers. In addition, there were roughly 200,000 workers who returned to the States each year on pre-existing worker visas. Most in Teton County would lawfully return annually to work for peak winter and summer seasons, and then leave in the spring and fall. That year, the law changed so that the 200,000 returning workers lost the ability to reclaim previous visas. After 2007, the cap for worker visas remained at 65,000, but an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 returning workers and their families were stripped of their ability to work legally in the States.

Employers put pressure on those workers to stay in the States. Trefonas explained that undocumented workers faced a difficult decision: “The law said you don’t get a visa to return, but the employer said, ‘I need you and I’ll pay you well.’”

Now, young people are faced with this decision. As Trefonas said, “The three- and 10-year problem starts at 18 years old. Prior to that age, undocumented children are deportable. But as soon as they turn 18 they also begin acquiring the three- and 10-year problem before they can obtain permission to re-enter the United States lawfully.”

They have to choose between returning to a place often totally foreign to them, or risk working without documentation.

Trefonas says she and her colleagues visit local schools each year “to have really real conversations about their choices.” They encourage students to think about pursuing degrees outside of the U.S., because it is easier to obtain a work visa to the States as a professional.

Lingering fears

Undocumented residents live in fear of deportation, though local officials have emphasized that they won’t be targeted for immigration enforcement unless they’ve committed dangerous crimes, sought re-entry into the United States multiple times, or have posed a consistent threat to the community.

However, an executive order signed by Trump says ICE can target anyone who has “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” This could drastically expand the number of people targeted. Trefonas calls the order “extremely frightening,” though so far, many local ICE offices have yet to follow its language. Still, the doors are open for ICE to expand its reach. David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Ohio, told USA Today that this policy “is a blueprint for mass deportations.”

ICE has sometimes employed questionable practices in Jackson. Between 2006 and 2011, for example, hundreds of undocumented residents were detained and transferred from Teton County. Some did not have criminal histories, and many only had misdemeanors. Until 2006, the closest ICE facility was based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. At that time, the form ICE gave immigrants when they were arrested was usually provided in English only. That form gives arrestees the option to check one of three boxes—either they agree to deportation, request a hearing for their case, or state that they fear for their safety if they return to their country of origin.

Trefonas found that prior to 2006, the box agreeing to deportation was regularly pre-checked.

Now, the ICE office is based in Casper, and its practices have changed. The forms are no longer pre-checked, and they’re available in Spanish. Trefonas says she’s known ICE officials to be respectful and have stuck to their word. However, she fears for the future of immigration enforcement in Teton County under the Trump administration.

‘The last time she would ever see her family’

Flores didn’t understand what was happening when he left Mexico. He remembers his mom tightly hugging her siblings and parents: “She knew that it would be the last time she would ever see her family,” he said. Now, Flores sometimes comes home to find his mom locked in her room with tears rolling down her face. “My grandad is getting older and we all know he doesn’t have much life left … I daydream about the day I will see my mom and dad hug their families again.”

Leaving Mexico was painful. Now, it’s painful for Flores to feel that people in his community see people like him as a problem. He “loves this country more than life itself,” but believes that many in Teton County benefit from and rely on undocumented labor without viewing these workers as valuable, or understanding how difficult it is to become documented. “[The United States] has always used slavery or cheap labor to be the country it is today,” he said.

Flores says many of the undocumented residents he knows have escaped abject poverty to devote their lives to their work, but they receive few benefits, and never get to truly belong. “People will say you chose this, no one told you to come here illegally, but then again, no one is complaining about the revenue cheap labor brings. The truth is, laws won’t stop a father from feeding his family.” PJH

*His name has been changed.

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