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Lockdown in Greeley | The Nation

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Lockdown in Greeley

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Elected Democratic officials--who now hold the Colorado Statehouse and a majority in the legislature--have not offered much significant support. "In Colorado," says Sylvia Martinez, "the politicians think it would be political suicide to support these workers." Just last summer, in a special session of the legislature, state Democrats tried to one-up then-GOP Governor Bill Owens in passing a slate of tough anti-immigrant legislation. "Our Democrats have been as unhelpful as the Republicans on the immigration issues," says Lindsey Hodel, field director for the Colorado Progressive Coalition. State Representative Riesberg, who convened a community forum on the Greeley raids in late January and who supports liberalized immigration reform, readily concedes that the prevailing political atmosphere makes it hard for Democrats to speak out. "The people of Colorado have made it clear they want the law to be enforced and are saying, 'What part of illegal don't you understand?'" he says. "But I'm concerned that some of those feelings are based on disinformation."

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

The vacuum left by elected officials has been filled by new grassroots groups like Martinez's Latinos Unidos and their most reliable ally, Father Bernie Schmitz of Our Lady of Peace church. The 59-year-old bespectacled priest has stepped forward as an ardent advocate and defender of the immigrant workers who make up the bulk of his congregation. His church and its social network have become the command center of community relief and have so far raised more than $80,000 in contributions. Family members left behind by the raids can turn to the union and Padre Bernie, as he's called, to pay the utility bills. A food center funded by donations made through the church provides boxes of food for anyone who walks in the door.

On the one-month anniversary of the raids, Father Schmitz organized an interfaith mass that drew dozens on a bitterly cold, snowy weeknight. "Let us pray for the migrant workers," he told those who attended. "Let us who benefit from their labor be grateful to them for what they provide and let us welcome them." In an interview after the mass, Father Schmitz confirms that while his church has been coordinating relief and tending to divided families, he has yet to be contacted by any official from ICE or any other federal agency. "Not that I'd necessarily want to speak to them," he says with a smile.

At a cake and punch reception that evening in the church basement, I meet two middle-aged brothers from Guatemala's western countryside. They speak to me in a Spanish heavily accented with their indigenous Quiché. Another brother and the 22-year-old son of one of them were caught in the raid and now languish with sixty other Guatemalans in an El Paso detention center. Judge Kane ordered them returned to Colorado so they can be assisted by counsel and allowed to post bond, but instead they were held for weeks out of state. "We can't go back to Totonicapán," says Rosalio, referring to the Guatemalan department a lot of them come from. He's been working in Colorado for ten years but has no legal papers. "Back there it's full of organized crime, drug traffickers and injustice." He goes on, "And injustice here as well. It's been very difficult seeing our families taken away from work for no other crime than working." No one I speak to in Greeley--not Father Schmitz, not Sylvia Martinez, not even the Guatemalans themselves--can tell me of any local Guatemalan leaders, any activists or representatives. All anybody knows is that there are several hundred Guatemalans in town and now dozens of them in jail.

Greeley was founded in 1870 as an experimental farming community organized by Nathan Meeker, the agricultural editor of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. By the 1920s the almost uniformly WASP community had grown the area into one of America's most important sugar beet providers. During World War II, German and Austrian POWs housed nearby were used to help tend to the profitable crops. Mexican braceros were also imported to take the place of local men drafted into the war. Cattle processing on a mass scale had come to town by the 1960s. And as the meatpacking industry went through its own labor revolution in the 1980s and '90s--breaking some traditional unions, automating and downgrading much of the workforce to less-skilled, lower-paid positions--the local plant became a magnet for Mexican and Central American migrants.

Like many other mountain and Midwestern cities experiencing similar "browning," Greeley was until recently making an uneasy cultural transition. The more middle-class Anglos, some commuting to Denver to high-tech jobs, live on the manicured west side of town. The newer, darker immigrant population has mushroomed in the grittier eastern and northern neighborhoods. Jerry's Market, founded by German immigrants, soon added a taquería, while carnicerías and tortillerías appeared on the edge of downtown. The Greeley Tribune started publishing a weekly supplement in Spanish. Latinos still had no political representation, but racial conflict was submerged.

Greeley and surrounding Weld County, however, have the misfortune of being a GOP stronghold in an increasingly Democratic state, and thus are vulnerable to hardball partisan manipulation. In the fall of 2005 the politically ambitious county DA, Ken Buck (a Republican married to the current state GOP vice chair), joined forces with Republican US Senator Wayne Allard and conservative US Representative Marilyn Musgrave in proposing that ICE open a local office in Greeley. The trio saw political opportunity in linking illegal immigration to rising crime rates and argued that bringing the immigration cops into Greeley would restore order. The tone for such racially tinged politicking had already been established by fellow Colorado US Representative Tom Tancredo, who built his political profile (and now intends to run for President) on a hard-line anti-immigration position.

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