Fears, Anxieties Deepen for Immigrants

By on May 16, 2018

Advocacy work in other parts of the state highlights a void in Teton County

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Recently, Juntos founder and ACLU organizer, Antonio Serrano, based in Cheyenne, got a call from a girl whose father had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She couldn’t find him. By the time they tracked him down, her father was already in Mexico.

Over the past decade, but particularly since the election of President Trump, ICE has become increasingly empowered to act on its own discretion. Its tactics are more threatening, it targets more people, and the consequences of being detained are higher.

According to Trac Immigration, 29.2 percent of deportations in 1992 were based on criminal activity. In 2010, that number had decreased by half. Now, less than 6 percent of deportees have a criminal history. Most are targeted based on legal status alone.

What happens after a person is detained is also of concern.

For detainees awaiting a hearing, the average wait time in prison is 700 days, more than double what it was 10 years ago.

Colorado’s facilities—where the majority of Jackson’s immigrants targeted by ICE go—have the longest wait time in the country. Immigrants wait an average of 1,058 days.

These statistics are indeed relevant to Wyoming. Between 2000 and 2016, the Latino population increased 84 percent.

Cheyenne is about 15 percent Latino, and Laramie about 8 percent. Both cities now have branches of Juntos, which trains undocumented immigrants in their rights, has a rapid response team that will go observe ICE interactions, and is fighting against the proposed ICE detention center in Evanston.

Jackson, however, lacks such resources yet it has the highest percentage of Hispanic immigrants in the state, about 30 percent of the population.

This lack of resources has compounded the fears and anxieties among Jackson’s immigrant populace.

Cecily Martinez commutes from Swan Valley, Idaho, to Jackson for work every day, and though she is white, many family members and friends are immigrants, some documented, others not. They are in desperate need of more help, she said.

When ICE is in town, “People are scared to go to work, they don’t want to go to the grocery store, they are constantly living in fear.”

One man she knows who was in the valley for 20 years with little more than a speeding ticket was recently deported.

Another has children born in the valley and was recently sent a deportation order. He refuses to leave his kids, and has been “in hiding” at various friends’ houses since then.

The people she knows left their home countries because there was little work and a lot of violence, Martinez said.

“They’re making the equivalent of $10 a day, they can’t feed their family … They make the dangerous, expensive journey to the States to work. It’s not they want to be here illegally. If there was an easy path to citizenship, they’d take it.”

In the last year, Martinez said she’s noticed fear pervade the immigrant community: “It’s really bad, it’s hard emotionally. It puts people in a depression. They feel helpless and hopeless.” There needs to be more support for these people, Martinez said. Right now the attitude seems to be, “Oh well, what can we do about it?”

Serrano feels that something can and should be done all across the state. Wyoming’s power is in its small population size, in its shared values, he said.

 

“Growing up, I saw ranchers work next to undocumented workers and stand up for them. Here, we respect workers. We respect Wyomingites.”

 

He grew up in Albin, Wyoming, population 120, and can fence and brand with the best of them. His father was undocumented for most of his life, but worked alongside white ranchers and farmers.

“Growing up, I saw ranchers work next to undocumented workers and stand up for them. Here, we respect workers. We respect Wyomingites.”

That’s the soul of the state, Serrano said—a place where people may not agree politically, but where hard work is honored and the land unifies everybody.

At 13, Serrano moved to the south side of Cheyenne, the less white and less affluent part of town. He knows it all—country life, city life, immigrant life. Wyoming is a part of him, but he doesn’t always feel he’s welcome as a part of it.

“I’ve been followed in stores since I was a little kid,” Serrano said. Just this week in Walmart, he thought a man was going to call the police on him. Meanwhile, the news has been flooded with stories of white people calling the police on people of color—those touring a college, barbecuing with family, waiting for an Uber.

“We’ve always been treated differently because we’re Mexican or brown or Latino,” Serrano said. He was bullied for being Mexican in school, something that still happens in Jackson, Martinez said. She’s heard of kids telling Latino peers that they’re going to call ICE, that their family will be deported.

For all of his life, Serrano has worked as a manual laborer. Two years ago, he co-founded Juntos. Three months ago, he was hired on as a full time ACLU organizer. Serrano’s mission is to advocate for Wyoming’s immigrants and particularly its undocumented residents, those people who “are a part of everything in Wyoming.”

Right now, Juntos’ focus is on the proposed private prison in Evanston that would serve as an ICE detention center. The company that would open the prison, Management & Training Organization, out of Centerville, Utah, has been accused of overworking guards and neglecting inmates. At its other facilities, detainees have complained of backed up toilets, moldy food, and rodent infestations.

The company has denied these allegations.

“This is not just bad for detainees,” Serrano said, “it’s bad for the people working there, and it’s bad for Wyoming.”

He said this isn’t what Wyoming stands for—incarcerating immigrants who likely have no criminal history in a place run by an out-of-state corporation.

Wyoming residents at different ends of the spectrum agree. Juntos is gaining bipartisan support from Wyoming business, faith, and political leaders. Serrano feels hopeful about stopping the construction of the prison, and doing more to support immigrants in general.

It has been difficult, though, because undocumented residents are so afraid right now. There’s a fear of speaking in public, or joining Juntos’ efforts and becoming visible.

Something needs to shift, Serrano said: “I’m happy to fight for my people, I’ll sacrifice time with my family. But I need my people to stand with me. I can’t do it alone … We’re not going to sit on the sidelines, we’re going to get involved because we matter too.”

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