THE BUZZ: American Dreams, Undocumented Fears

By on February 21, 2017

A ‘Day Without Immigrants’ illuminated the young people in Jackson fearful for their families and their futures.

Students who participated in a ‘Day Without Immigrants’ on Thursday marched three miles from Jackson Hole High School to Town Square. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – For one month Nesley Corona waited in Agua Prieta in the state of Sonora, Mexico, with her two older sisters before boarding a truck that would cart her across the border into the United States. While she waited, the person responsible for her transport kept asking her for more money. She was 15 years old.

Neither of her sisters would make it—one was pregnant, and was injured and arrested before the month was up. The other was arrested and forced to return home. Corona crossed the border alone.

Just last week, the soft-spoken 18-year-old found herself in front of a crowd of more than 100 people, leading them in chants of “Si se puede” (Yes we can).

As an undocumented immigrant, Corona, a senior at Jackson Hole High School, fears an uncertain future for her and her mother, and immigrants across the country under President Trump’s administration.

“I think it’s serious,” Corona said about the president’s proposed immigration policies. “People have been deported. We have to do something about this.”

Corona was one of two high school organizers of the “Day Without Immigrants” demonstration last Thursday. She saw a post on Facebook about the day, and asked her friend and classmate Jamie Vargas to organize a march with her. Vargas, Corona said, was the perfect counterpart: she is outspoken, expressive, and well connected.

“Without her, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Corona said.

For immigrants and immigrant families, particularly those without documentation, safety is never a guarantee. Increased interactions with racism, combined with new immigration enforcement laws under Trump’s administration, leave young people like Corona feeling even more uncertain about their futures. But many have also been emboldened to communicate their worth to peers and their community at large.

Rising racism and heightened fears

While she doesn’t believe Trump will follow through on his promise to deport all undocumented immigrants, Corona says she and her mom still live in constant fear. Corona’s mom discouraged her from marching at first for fear her daughter would get in trouble. When rumors circulated last week about federal immigration officers visiting local restaurants, Corona’s mom decided not to commute over Teton Pass. “She was very scared,” Corona said. Local law enforcement dispelled rumors of the raid, but seeing her mom’s reaction inspired Corona to take action.

“We have to show the government that we are concerned and that we make a difference in this country,” she said.

For young Latinos in Jackson, life in the Trump era is a constant battle of humanity. Seventeen-year-old Michelle Tzompa is a senior at Jackson Hole High School. She says racism in the school’s halls and classrooms has spiked since the election. Comments that she’s heard from classmates like, “We’re gonna take back what’s ours,” and “He’s gonna get you out of here” weigh on the well-being of Latino students—so much so that Tzompa says students have stayed home from school to avoid harassment.

Corona reports segregation at school is palpable. “Half of the classroom is separate in our school, half white, half Latinos,” she said. She notices the same separation in the hallways, in the rotunda on breaks, and in the cafeteria at lunch. Making friends as an immigrant is no easy task, she said. “It’s hard to move from a country and then start again from the beginning—new friends, new relationships,” Corona said. She also had to learn a new language.

High school government teacher Jim Rooks has also had to mitigate moments of racism as a teacher. The high school, he said, is a “microcosm of American society.  Everything [students] see in the mainstream news media gets watered down into derivatives within the classroom.” It was in Rooks’ class that Corona conceived the idea to participate in a Day Without Immigrants.

Racism was less pronounced in the life of 22-year-old Rosa Sanchez, but the election caused her to question the depth of some of her friendships. Sanchez said she has always felt protected by a community that she feels is “pretty liberal and accepting.” So to see friends and neighbors support Trump was a shock. Even if people in her life are not blatantly racist towards her, she says that voting for Trump reveals a prejudice that she was unaware of in many of her friends. She felt betrayed.

“Now I don’t know how to feel about [them],” she said.

Before the election, she said she was able to keep politics and her personal life separate. Now, politics are personal.

Sanchez is a “Dreamer”—she immigrated to the United States when she was six years old, and qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA, which was passed in 2012, grants conditional residency to undocumented adolescents who were brought to the United States as children before the age of 16. DACA recipients like Sanchez have lived in the United States most of their lives, and would have no home to return to in their country of origin. Proponents argue that children who had no agency in immigrating to the states should not be punished for living here without documentation. Since its implementation, it has granted more than 1.5 million young immigrants temporary residency and the opportunity to legally attend university.

DACA’s future, and therefore Sanchez’s future, is uncertain. Trump campaigned to end DACA, but has yet to act on that promise.

“What people fear most through all this is the unknown,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez remembers watching the election results come in and thinking, “This is it… I remember him being announced, and I didn’t even wait for his acceptance speech before I was bawling.” Amid her tears, Sanchez says people tried to tell her that it was OK.

“It’s not OK, because if tomorrow I wake up and somebody tells me I have to leave this country, they’re telling me I have to leave the place I call home,” Sanchez said.

Rooks recognizes his students’ fears but is hopeful about the dramatic increase in participation and political engagement he has seen since the election. As an educator, he is used to fighting “apathy and ignorance” in the classroom. Recently, however, he says his students are interested and involved. The Day Without Immigrants, he said, is a demonstration of democracy at its finest.

“I’m so proud to have any students educating themselves and being active participants,” Rooks said. “It doesn’t even matter what they’re protesting for or against, I’m just happy to see them engaged and doing something.”

Childhood cut short

Much of the debate surrounding a Day Without Immigrants focused on the difference between “legal” versus “illegal” immigration. But while many of the marchers were undocumented, Sanchez said the demonstration did not intend to give privilege to any one group.

“It had nothing to do with being illegal, or Mexican, or Latino,” Sanchez said. Instead, it was a display of solidarity for all immigrants of all nationalities.

Still, the effects of undocumented immigration on Jackson, and the nation, are far-reaching. Part of the march’s mission statement was, in fact, to demonstrate how critical an immigrant workforce is to Jackson’s economy. A report published by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) in 2016 found that undocumented immigrants contribute around $11.6 billion to the economy annually. Undocumented immigrants in Wyoming contributed $12.7 million in state in federal taxes last year, according to a report from the New American Economy (NAE). And a University of Wyoming study conducted in 2007 found the immigrant labor force to be responsible for 11 percent of Teton County’s $3.2 billion industry output. At the time, Latinos comprised 6 percent of the population—that percentage has since risen to about 33 percent.

The young women who spoke with PJH covered the legal spectrum: Corona is undocumented. She and her mother are applying for Domestic Violence green cards based on her mother’s past relationship. Sanchez is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiary, and could one day obtain full citizenship. Tzompa is a legal citizen, but the daughter of an undocumented mother. All of their stories suggest that legal and illegal immigration are not as clear as they may seem.

Sanchez emphasized that she had no choice in her immigration status. At six years old, she did not know that she was immigrating illegally, or what that even meant. “I couldn’t stand up to my parents,” she said. DACA allowed her to gain temporary residence and enroll in college, but there is still a chance of it being repealed.

Corona, meanwhile, immigrated to be with her mother. She says she understands why people are upset by illegal immigration, but encourages those people to put themselves in the shoes of an immigrant, and especially their children. She emphasized that people who immigrate illegally often do so under desperate circumstances.

“People in other countries have no money, nothing to eat … They don’t understand the depression,” Corona said. “They don’t know the lives people are living.”

“We left my country because it was hard to prosper in it,” Sanchez echoed.

It’s also not easy to immigrate legally, Sanchez said. “If there was an easy way, nobody would be crossing the border and risking their lives.” Visa qualifications are stringent, and there is a limit to how many applications are accepted per year. Unless an applicant has immediate family in the U.S., a prospective employer usually in a highly specialized job, or access to humanitarian protection such as refugee or asylum status, there is essentially no “line” for hopeful citizens to wait in.

Corona’s mom is applying for a U Nonimmigrant Visa, which is available to survivors of crimes who have suffered physical or emotional abuse and aided law enforcement in the investigation of a crime. The visa program was created in conjunction with the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which includes the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act, in 2000, and is intended “to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens and other crimes, while also protecting victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse…” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s website. A few years ago, Corona said her mom was in a relationship that ended in stalking and harassment. Corona’s mom reported her partner to the police, and is now working on providing evidence of her abuse.

Tzompa and her two younger sisters are U.S.-born citizens, but their mother is undocumented. She is applying for residency, but Tzompa says she is afraid of what could happen if her application is denied. If she were deported, Tzompa and her sisters would be left on their own.

The 17-year-old says she marched for her mother. “I’ve seen her struggle and do so many things, I … wanted to do something for her and show her that she is important to this community,” she said.

Painful memories

Tzompa, Corona and Sanchez are all too young to remember the raids of 1996 that shook the town’s Latino population. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested around 150 “suspected” undocumented immigrants—40 of them actually had legal documentation, the Denver Post reported. Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith was a low ranking officer at the time, and remembers the morning debrief feeling low-key and fairly routine. Immigration officials expected to detain between 30 to 40 undocumented workers. By the end of the afternoon, however, “what had been … low-key got turned up a notch,” Smith said. Word had spread, and “people panicked … Instead of going into a restaurant [to ask for employees], it turned into one of those things where you went into a parking lot and you’d see people running.”  Officers had to utilize the police department’s horse trailer to transport the unexpectedly large group of detained people, which Smith said was one of the more “controversial” aspects of the raid.

Smith said he didn’t know how immigration got word of Jackson’s undocumented population at the time, but there has not, to his memory, been a raid of that scope since. Now, immigration only becomes involved when someone is arrested for a crime.

U.S. immigration and National Service (INS) admitted that the raid did little more than “kicked up a whole lotta dust,” according to the Denver Post, but nationally, the raids were lauded as one of the great successes of the Clinton administration. Smith acknowledged that 1996 was a different time—immigration was just entering the national dialogue, and most of undocumented workers in Jackson were young men. Families had not yet been brought into the conversation.

While there is no proof of any recent raids in Jackson, ICE arrested approximately 680 people across the country last week, according to The Washington Post. Typically, ICE only intervenes in felony criminal cases. But a transgender woman in El Paso, Texas, was detained last week after seeking legal protections against an abusive partner. Another woman in Phoenix, Arizona, was deported for using a fake social security number. Hers is believed to be the first deportation under Trump’s January 25 executive order, which broadens the definition of what is considered criminal. She had lived in the states for 21 years and has two American-born children. Her story is Tzompa’s nightmare.

Molly Kelly, chair of One22’s board of directors, encourages people with questions to call One22. “It is a very uncertain time for many families in our community,” she wrote PJH. “As always, One22 is here to provide resources and referrals in English and Spanish to anyone needing more information.” PJH

About Shannon Sollitt

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