Looming Threat to 'Dreamers,' Immigration Crackdown Stokes Fears in Local Communities

Alex Trujillo

Alex Trujillo Photo by David O. Williams


Connecting state and local government leaders

In Colorado and elsewhere, thousands are looking toward the shadows: “People won’t be calling police when they’re victims of crime, and we’re already seeing that.”

AVON, Colo. — Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Colorado and across the nation are facing a Sept. 5 deadline that could see them chased back into the shadows of illegal immigration at a time when cities and towns are grappling with stepped up Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions at county and municipal courthouses.

“It’s not just me. Obviously, there’s a huge population of Hispanics here in this county in the same process that I am,” said Alex Trujillo, 21, a resident of Eagle County, located on Colorado's Western Slope. “We’re scared that if DACA were to be removed now that some of us are older, it’s going to affect us.”

Trujillo, a restaurant worker with a college degree, is referring to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program implemented by then-President Barack Obama by executive order in 2012 that provides deportation protection for more than 750,000 children of illegal immigrants brought to the United States at very young ages. There are more than 18,000 DACA recipients in Colorado.

Those recipients are often called "Dreamers," a reference to the DREAM Act, a legislative proposal first introduced in 2001 that would allow the children of parents who brought them into the United States without authorization a pathway to conditional and permanent residency and protection from deportation.

But the DREAM Act is still a dream. For now, there is DACA.

“I feel like it would affect a lot of people, not just here but all over the U.S., because a lot of us who go to school, get our degree, pay taxes and have lived here a long time, we already feel a part of this country and feel secure already with DACA,” added Trujillo, who came to Colorado at age 5 from the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

President Trump promised during the 2016 campaign to repeal DACA but then backed off those statements after winning the White House, saying he would “show great heart” in dealing with the DACA program.

But now a group of 10 Republican attorney generals led by Ken Paxton of Texas and including Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter have given the administration until Sept. 5 to repeal DACA or face their collective legal wrath.

“During the election season, when you started hearing about Donald Trump saying he was going to take away DACA, it’s sort of this feeling of ripping away the reality that we’ve been able to build for ourselves over the last four years because of the opportunity that was provided to us through DACA,” said Marco Dorado, a 25-year-old DACA recipient who is now the program coordinator for the Latino Leadership Institute at the University of Denver.

Marco Dorado (Photo courtesy Marco Dorado)

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman did not join the group challenging DACA, but that’s cold comfort to Dorado and other Colorado “Dreamers” who have registered with the federal program, stayed out of legal trouble and studied and worked productively for years.

“What [the attorney generals’ threat] creates is a feeling of insecurity because in order to obtain DACA, we gave the government all of our information, so they know exactly where we live, exactly where we work, they have our fingerprints,” said Dorado, whose parents brought him to Denver at age 3 from Zacatecas, Mexico. He went on to become student council president at the University of Colorado after interning at the state legislature and Morgan Stanley in Denver.

LaLo Montoya, 30, came to Colorado at age 2, also from Zacatecas. A DACA recipient, he understands the value of federal recognition and what it’s meant to be able to work and live without the constant threat of deportation the last several years.

“Time is something that you don’t get back, and to be living in fear pretty much my whole life, I don’t believe it’s right,” said Montoya, who now works for the tech-industry immigration reform lobbying group FWD.us. “I don’t believe in families continuing to live this way, and that’s why I advocate every single day for commonsense immigration reform.”

Seeking Legislative Action

Montoya successfully helped advocate for DACA, joining a peaceful protest at an Obama campaign office in Denver in 2012 and then advocating for the passage of the state Colorado Asset law in 2013, which allows undocumented high school graduates to attend Colorado colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates. Now he wants to see a legislative fix that codifies DACA into federal law and takes it out of the hands of the executive branch.

For FWD.us and other immigration-reform advocacy groups, that focus has shifted away from the BRIDGE Act to the latest Senate version of Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham’s bipartisan Dream Act and the RAC (Recognizing America’s Children) Act, sponsored in the House by Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo and co-sponsored by Colorado Republican Mike Coffman and 16 other Republicans.

“It's so important to recognize that young people who were brought here as children, who grew up here, went to school here, and who often know of no other country, be allowed to legally remain in the United States,” Coffman said in a press release.

Dorado insists on bipartisan legislative solutions to keep protections in place and remove the executive branch from DACA discussion. He says it’s a socio-economic imperative.

“We need leadership from both sides of the aisle, especially in a state like Colorado where you have individuals who have DACA like myself who are college-educated working professionals, but you also have a lot of individuals who are not college-educated who work in industries where their labor is critical,” said Dorado, referring to the state’s tourism, agriculture and tech sectors.

FWD.us spokesman Pete Boogaard, who worked for four years in communications at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is extremely concerned that the Trump administration in a little under a month will cave to the 10 state AG’s threatening legal action against DACA.

Boogard worked on implementing the DACA program for the Obama administration when Janet Napolitano served as Homeland Security secretary. He’s nervous that anti-DACA comments from Trump administration AG Jeff Sessions and former DHS Secretary turned White House Chief of Staff John Kelly indicate they will not defend DACA in court.

“It would be very difficult for the Department of Homeland Security to continue to implement a program that the head law enforcement and lawyer of the government questioned whether it was constitutional,” said Boogaard, who points out approximately 200,000 DACA applications have been renewed under Trump.

“If these states attorney generals follow through on their threat or if the administration capitulates to that threat and rescinds the program beforehand, DACA could be gone within the next 50 days, which is hugely concerning and something that we are going to fight aggressively to try and keep from happening,” Boogaard added.

Local Impacts of an ICE Crackdown

Should DACA be repealed or simply not defended by the administration against the threatened legal challenge, recipients of the program fear they’ll be scooped up in the same intensified enforcement targeting undocumented residents at courthouses across the country. Montoya says that overzealous enforcement of immigration laws is wreaking havoc with the justice system.

“That sort of enforcement mentality only breaks trust in the community,” Montoya said. “People won’t be calling police when they’re victims of crime, and we’re already seeing that. We’re already seeing people not going to their doctor’s appointments or court dates, fearful that ICE will be there, for very minor things.”

Mayors around the nation are gearing up to fight federal legislation aimed at punishing municipalities with unofficial sanctuary status, and in Colorado, cities from Denver on down to iconic mountain ski towns are struggling to reassure immigrants and protect residents from deportation.

In Eagle County, which includes Vail, that’s led to efforts by one local prosecutor to get the county commissioners to adopt a resolution clearly delineating the duties of local law enforcement and federal officials in order to assure undocumented residents that local cops won’t deport them.

“We have to have a more thought-out approach to immigration policy so that we’re not terrifying undocumented immigrants and their family members, because we need everyone’s cooperation to actually really prosecute criminals, and this is standing in the way of that,” said Inga Causey, a civil litigator who represent domestic violence and sexual assault victims and is also a Vail town prosecutor. “There’s a greater visibility of ICE agents at the courthouses. The fear is still there.”

Causey helped launch the Community Trust Project to hopefully get all the local law enforcement agencies, town councils and county government to agree on a resolution spelling out what local police will and won’t do and then clearly communicate that message to immigrant communities through local media and charitable organizations.

“The way that they’ve implemented these [federal] policies is to such an extent that they’re hurting local prosecutors, DAs,” Causey said. “They’re hurting our ability to actually prosecute criminals, and they’re scaring the heck out of everyone and sweeping up people that don’t need to be swept up.”

Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan, who’s running for the state legislature in 2018, said in an interview that immigrants are scared and more needs to be done to protect them and ease their fears. The county already passed one resolution supporting the immigrant community and is now hiring a community outreach worker solely dedicated to working with the Latino community.

“I believe and I’ve seen that immigrants are vital to Colorado’s economy, especially areas with tourism and recreation, and also just how much they’re woven into the fabric of our communities,” said Ryan, who recently met with a couple who came here illegally as teens and now has four children who are citizens. The father owns a local business.

“It’s vitally important we don’t split up families. I just think that’s inhumane,” said Ryan, who supports a resolution further spelling out the role of local law enforcement on immigration issues. “There can always be more done, because this is a community currently that’s very scared.”

Ryan wants to see zero cooperation with ICE agents except in the most extreme cases.

“In my view, I just don’t think it’s local law enforcement’s job to enforce federal immigration law, and I would go so far as to say I don’t even believe we should be helping them at all,” Ryan said.

David O. Williams is a journalist based in Avon, Colorado.

NEXT STORY: Neighborhood Group Fights David Beckham’s Stadium Ambitions