Lockdown in Greeley
"Before the raids, I think we were all trying to move toward some sort of adjustment," says Sylvia Martinez. "But that all changed when Ken Buck made his move." The county commission, without public debate, approved Buck's proposal for a local ICE office. As the measure moved forward, the Latino community began to stir. Longtime Chicano activists and 1960s veterans Priscilla Falcon and Ricardo Romero put together some protest meetings, which soon swelled in size, frequency and intensity. New leaders, including Martinez, emerged.
The Montana-born daughter of Tex-Mex farmworkers, Martinez had worked the fields in her youth and worked her way up to serving as an investigator for the local public defender. While she followed local politics, she didn't get involved until Buck's proposal for the ICE office. "I thought I would be a coward if I didn't stand up against it," she says. As many as 600 people opposed the proposal when it came before the City Council in late 2005. The council punted, and it was scrapped. Local Latino power had won its first victory.
Once again, as the response to the December raids continues to build, that same sort of rising political energy is being felt. "All this stuff has made one great change," says Mexican-born radio announcer Elda Gamez, who became the community's electronic voice as she went live on the air during the day of the raid. "That change is unity. We were hit with a very low blow, but it served us well, and we've gotten support from people we've never heard from before." Father Schmitz is equally optimistic. "This has put a face on the issue," he says. "It's no longer abstract."
What drives that optimism, even in the midst of the current turmoil, is a sense of inevitability. The local migrants, their families and advocates know they are riding the tide of a global economic and demographic wave more powerful than any fleeting enforcement or political gesture. "ICE might think it has changed the rules, but the real game here is supply and demand," says Mark Grey. "This industry and several others would collapse if you removed the immigrant workers. There is simply no going back. The only solution is comprehensive immigration reform which recognizes these realities."
The Clinton Administration carried out similar immigration raids on the meatpacking industry between 1992 and 1997. But that didn't put a crimp in the northward flow of migrants. For millions of Mexicans, the march across the border is a forced exodus, as a couple from Guanajuato tell me when I sit with them in their cramped, drafty trailer in a mobile home park in Greeley. I'll call them Domingo and Emilia; both are in their early 30s. Domingo, an undocumented Swift worker since 2001, was picked up in the December raid, briefly jailed in El Paso and then dumped across the border into Juárez. After a quick trip to see his extended family in Guanajuato, he put together $2,000, paid a coyote and, along with seven other deported Swift workers from his hometown, dodged the Border Patrol and trudged across the Arizona desert back into the United States. He arrived in his Greeley trailer exactly twenty-two days after he'd been arrested.
"I walked for three days and three nights. I was already diabetic, but now I think my leg is ruined," he says, massaging his shin. "But I would do it again tomorrow. And tomorrow and the next day," he says, nodding toward his 3-year-old son, who's running on the threadbare rug in Spiderman pajamas. The boy is a US citizen, as is his 1-year-old sister. Their 8-year-old sister, poring over her homework at the tiny dining table, is not.
Domingo says that from the moment he was detained, he was determined to come back. He knows he can't return to Swift, where he made $12.75 an hour, but he also knows he can't take his family back to Mexico. "There is no work there," he says. The union paid the couple's gas and light bill and gave Emilia a food card worth $50. But no more aid is available, and the family is five days late on the $389 monthly trailer rent. Emilia says the only option to be discarded is returning to Mexico. "This country may not be our country, but it is the country of opportunity," she says, hugging her husband. "This isn't for us. We are Mexicans. This is for them. The children. They are the Americans."