New immigration policies frighten Steamboat’s undocumented residents | SteamboatToday.com

New immigration policies frighten Steamboat’s undocumented residents

Teresa Ristow

American flags wave in the wind alongside U.S. Highway 40.

— Undocumented immigrants in Steamboat Springs say they are now living in fear following the announcement of changes to federal deportation policies.

"I'm just afraid for everyone," said a 39-year-old undocumented Steamboat Springs woman who moved to the United States from Mexico in 2007. "I see a police car, and to me, it looks like five, so I don't want to drive anywhere."

The woman, who spoke through a Spanish language interpreter, was one of several undocumented immigrants, identified by nonprofit Integrated Community, who agreed to speak to Steamboat Today under conditions of anonymity in order to share their feelings about announcements this week regarding a federal rewrite of national immigration policies.

On Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security memos outlined that immigrants living in the country illegally who are charged or convicted of any offense or even suspected of a crime would now be a priority for deportation.

Under the Obama administration, only those convicted of serious crimes, recent border crossers or those considered threats to national security were deemed a priority.

Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins said Wednesday that, despite the recent policy rewrites, nothing has changed in the way county law enforcement responds to immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally.

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Wiggins said people stopped for traffic violations are not questioned about documentation, and only those arrested and fingerprinted will be reported to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a Department of Homeland Security division with its closest location in Craig.

"At this point in time, nothing is going to change," Wiggins said.

He said Routt County does not comply with detainer requests from ICE unless they are orders signed by a judge.

The sheriff's department will notify ICE if a criminal due to be released is suspected of being in the country illegally, and it is up to ICE whether or not to show up in the lobby and detain the person once released, he said.

"And sometimes, they do," Wiggins said.

A visit from immigration

The idea that things in Routt County are status quo for the time being doesn't feel true to the 39-year-old Steamboat woman who spoke to the newspaper.

Her teenage son completed his court dates in late January for a December 2016 driving while ability impaired charge.

Then, on Tuesday, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers paid the family an unexpected home visit.

"There was a knock at the door, and it was immigration," the woman said.

The 19-year-old high school student said he was taken by officers and brought to Craig.

"I was shackled at my hands and feet," the 19-year-old said. "I was like that all day."

He spent the night in jail, and his family was allowed to retrieve him after posting $5,000 bail Wednesday, said Sheila Henderson, executive director of Integrated Community.

"The fear is paralyzing the community," Henderson said.

Henderson said it’s the first time she’s seen ICE target someone convicted of a charge as insignificant of a DWAI, but it's the only out-of-the-ordinary incident she's aware of in recent weeks.

She said rampant rumors among the immigrant community about checkpoints to identify undocumented immigrants or officers picking up immigrants from the streets are untrue.

Feeling afraid

Many Steamboat residents in the country illegally continue to dwell on "what-ifs" and lie low following the news of rewrites to immigration policies.

One Steamboat Springs immigrant, a 50-year-old man, said he entered the country legally with his passport years ago but overstayed. He moved to Steamboat Springs 13 years ago and now runs a business with five employees, including undocumented immigrants.

"They're afraid, they're scared," he said.

The man, who spoke fluent English, said he felt if he were detained by immigration officers, he could afford a lawyer to fight his case, but he knows other immigrants don't feel as empowered.

"This is all new for us," he said.

The man said long ago he expected his father to petition for his citizenship, but now, obtaining legal documents as a permanent resident would likely take 25 years. If he were in Mexico still, the process would likely take less time, about 15 years, he said.

Every immigrant interviewed for this story said becoming a legal immigrant seemed impossible — either because they didn't have the money or the knowledge, or because the time it takes was unrealistically long.

One 36-year-old mother of six children said she isn't sure where she would go if she were deported to her home country of Mexico.

When she set out to move to the United States 13 years ago, she didn't have money, a profession or any property, all things needed to pursue legal citizenship, she said.

The city where she lived in Mexico was violent and stricken with poverty, and she's found a better life for her family in Steamboat Springs.

"This town — it's tranquil here and beautiful, and everyone knows us here," she said.

The woman is afraid now, because during the summer, her husband was stopped while working in Utah and his citizenship questioned. He's had several court dates to determine whether he should be allowed to stay in the country, even though he is undocumented, and his final court date is next week in Denver.

"None of us know what's going to happen," she said.

If forced to move back to Mexico, the woman said she'll likely pick a town close to the United States border to give her family access to medical care here.

But she doesn't know how the family would afford to buy school uniforms and lunches for all the children.

"What you make in a week in Mexico, you make in a day here," she said.

The woman, whose youngest child is just three weeks old, said for now, she makes fewer trips to the grocery store than in the past and is hesitant to walk in public or ride the bus.

"I've lived the majority of my life here, with my kids," she said. "What happens if they come for me?"

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow