Immigration, foreclosure questions follow fire at Steamboat duplex | SteamboatToday.com

Immigration, foreclosure questions follow fire at Steamboat duplex

Mike Lawrence

— The Aug. 14 fire at a duplex in downtown Steamboat Springs embodies several of the largest issues facing the county and country today.

Foreclosure, financial struggles, the economic recession, immigration, housing and em­­ploy­ment all are wrapped up in the still-unfolding aftermath of the fire that gutted three units at Fourth and Oak streets. There were no fatalities and only minor injuries to the tenants who had received an eviction notice a day earlier.

Tenants of a matching duplex that's across the alley and was not damaged by the fire also received an eviction notice, which followed the Aug. 11 foreclosure sale of the property to a subsidiary of Bank of America for more than $685,000. About 25 people lived in the five units in the two duplexes that date to 1949.

The 18 tenants displaced by the fire include an extended family with several children and about 10 adult members of the local workforce.

They came to Steamboat from locations including Peru, Honduras and El Salvador. Some have lived in Steamboat for several years, some less. Tatiana Achcar, executive director of Integrated Community, said some are documented, legal immigrants and some are not — the details remain unclear. Most of the tenants lost everything in the fire, including, in at least one case, immigration papers and lease documents that reportedly burned. The 18 tenants now are living in four units at The Ponds at Steamboat, thanks to a contribution Wed­nes­­day by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

Achcar said Ski Corp.'s housing assistance came as funds from the regional American Red Cross office were running out and the tenants' living situations were uncertain.

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"They are only taking what the Red Cross is able to give," Achcar said.

Achcar said the tenants' new living contract is good for a month. She said Ski Corp. officials indicated the contract could be extended if permanent housing is not found within that time.

Many local businesses and individuals also have lent a hand. Restaurants and City Market have given free meals, and the Alpiner Lodge provided discounted rooms for several nights.

"The Alpiner Lodge people were incredible," Achcar said. "We couldn't have asked for better treatment under the circumstances."

But many needs remain for the people who are dealing with personal loss that is shedding light on larger issues facing the Steamboat community.

"When you live under poverty, there is no buffer," Achcar said. "When things go wrong like this, quickly, everything else is affected."

Papers

Illegal immigration continues to be a hot topic in Colorado. Former Congressman Tom Tan­cre­­do, a longtime advocate for tougher immigration laws and enforcement, is the American Con­­stitution Party's candidate for governor. Last week, 11 Repub­lican state legislators, in­­cluding state Rep. Randy Baum­gardner, of Hot Sulphur Springs, traveled to Arizona to talk with legislators there about the state's controversial new immigration laws and how to bring similar legislation to Colo­­rado's Capitol next year.

"It's been an issue for at least a half a dozen years. I think it may be a little more urgent now just because of the lack of construction work," state Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, said about undocumented workers. "I think it adds a new urgency when work is so scarce."

Several of the people in the Aug. 14 fire work locally on construction projects and job sites including More Lumber near Milner. Achcar said she doesn't know exactly how many of those workers are in the country legally.

"I know some are; I know some aren't," Achcar said. "But honestly, I'm not lying to you, there was never a conversation here about who has papers and who doesn't. Because the way we approach this work is, to us, it's irrelevant.

"We deal with basic needs; we deal with human rights. We deal with integrating human beings into a community," she continued.

White and Achcar noted that employers often are the driving force behind the flow of people across the country's borders.

"Every single one of these people who came to the United States without documentation was fully sanctioned by employers," Achcar said. "So if you want to point fingers, you need to point fingers at everyone who made this possible."

She said there were fewer questions about undocumented workers when Routt County's job market was booming and "the whole community was benefiting" from the influx of workers.

"We can't have our cake and eat it too," she said. "If we, as a community, choose to invite and sanction workers who work here, we need to understand that when the pendulum goes in the other direction … families have been here awhile, and they've developed roots in the community. They are no longer just day workers."

Police

White said that under state law it's illegal to employ an undocumented worker. Enforcement is up to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, which can notify federal agencies about illegal employment situations.

Capt. Joel Rae, of the Steam­boat Springs Police Department, said his staff acts on immigration laws according to federal interest.

"We are as concerned about it as … ICE and the department of immigration is concerned about it," Rae said, referring to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Craig and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's immigration division, respectively. "If we take action and ICE doesn't do anything … then it doesn't do us any good to take action and pursue those matters."

Rae said immigration checks usually occur only in arrests and not in situations such as the Aug. 14 fire.

Officers interviewed every tenant because the situation "definitely raises some red flags" about arson, Rae said, but no immigration action was taken. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

"Unless an individual is charged with a jailable offense, then ICE isn't notified," Rae said.

He added that if the situation does not involve a crime, "it's very rarely that any action is taken."

How to help

Sarah Cherry, a local volunteer for the American Red Cross, said the best way to help the 18 people affected by the fire is through LIFT-UP of Routt County, 2125 Curve Court on Steamboat’s west side. Call LIFT-UP’s donation center at 970-879-3374 or LIFT-UP administration at 970-870-0727. The donation center is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.

Cherry has said cash donations are best because of the flexibility. Tatiana Achcar, executive director of Integrated Community, said those who want to donate specific items can call her at 970-871-4599 or programs coordinator Sheila Henderson at 970-620-1513 to learn what is needed.

Coming Monday

Read about the foreclosure and other ownership issues surrounding the duplexes at Fourth and Oak streets in Monday’s Steamboat Today.

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