Lockdown in Greeley
What nobody, including ICE, can answer is why, if the real targets were those people with stolen Social Security numbers, federal officials didn't go quietly into the Swift factories and, armed with warrants, simply arrest the suspects. Why the brash paramilitary operation? "I'll tell you why," says an indignant Robert McCormick, a Greeley immigration attorney representing about sixteen of the workers. "This is indeed a declaration of war on the immigrant community. This is about Republicans trying to appease their core bloc of supporters. Yeah, some people got a big kick out of this. But I think most Americans were revolted by it. Here in town, a lot of people have said they want no part of it. And others, I assure you, are going to wind up being very ashamed of it."
When I arrive in Greeley about three weeks after the raids, the entire town seems engulfed by cross-cutting emotions of bewilderment, fear, anger and resolve. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, the union that represents the Greeley workers and called the level of the force "totally outrageous," has been struggling to provide minimal legal and humanitarian assistance for those detained and the families left behind. "We still don't know where everybody is. There's still people popping up here and there in different detention centers," says burly Fernando Rodriquez, a director of Local 7, during an interview in his small downtown office. "Things are still chaotic."
Spurred by a lawsuit brought by Rodriquez's union, Denver Federal Judge John Kane found that a month after the raids, ICE had yet to disclose a comprehensive list of exactly who had been detained and where they were being held--or whether they had already been summarily deported. On January 12 he ordered ICE to disclose the whereabouts of all 262 Greeley detainees within ten days. "There are people in custody--there is an urgency to this," an angry Judge Kane told ICE lawyers. ICE finally complied with the court order in late January.
The aggressiveness of the arrests and what followed have startled many. "I was amazed by the force used, by the heavy armament," says Democratic State Representative James Riesberg. "Amazed that so many didn't have the bond hearings they were owed, that so many were held without their location disclosed."
When news of the raids broke, Rodriquez entered the plant but ICE officials prohibited him from getting personal information from the workers to pass on to their families. "ICE treated the workers like animals," he says. "Didn't let people eat or drink anything. Didn't let them go to the bathroom. Wouldn't let workers use phones to make arrangements for kids in school or at home." He adds, "This was something you think you might see on TV, but never did I imagine I would actually live through it."
The Greeley Latino community, about 35 percent of the population, was not totally unprepared for the disaster. Political events of the previous year had spurred community organization and generated vibrant new leadership. As word of the raid flashed on local Spanish-language radio, hundreds of worried family members and protesters converged on the factory gates. Local police mobilized to keep the crowd at bay as their loved ones were handcuffed and loaded by ICE into waiting buses. The militarized sweep hit the community like a hurricane, says 33-year-old Sylvia Martinez, one of Greeley's most prominent new Latino activists. "It's frightening to see the power that the federal government has to blow through here and leave a shambles," she says as we eat lunch at one of the town's many Mexican restaurants. "This has been our Katrina, a man-made Katrina. There's no information, no accountability."
As I speak with Martinez, we're joined by a number of relief volunteers, all of whom express something between red-hot anger and sullen resignation over the way, as they see it, they were abandoned by the government. As ICE carted away hundreds of workers, no federal or local official stayed behind to respond to questions, offer any information or deal with shattered families. "Just this morning I was with a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who came here two months ago with his mother. Now she's been taken away and is detained in Texas," says volunteer Laura Zuniga. "He doesn't speak English, he barely speaks Spanish, and he's been living with people who share his apartment. He's in shock. And there's no one, really no one, in charge."
Swift donated $60,000 to the local United Way. But local activists say too much of the charity money is tied up in red tape. They also cite a lack of solidarity with the detained workers and their families. The local union, they say, hasn't been easy to deal with, and the national labor movement has shown little support.
"The Swift raids are a troubling example of the way enforcement is being increased," says Ana Avendaño, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO's immigrant worker program. "But, no, we didn't put out any statement on the raids, because [the food workers' union] didn't ask us for anything." That union has affiliated with the new Change to Win coalition--a breakaway from the AFL-CIO--and while both federations support comprehensive immigration reform they have not agreed on a common strategy. "We did feel we were left out there by ourselves in the first couple days," says a national official of the food workers' union. "But then the hotel workers and Change to Win came in with a strong statement of support."