May 4, 2010

Growing Up Illegal in Colorado: Paying For A System We Didn’t Break

Article written by Kristen Painter of New Era News.

Edgar Niebla, 27, attended public school in Basalt, Colorado from 3rd grade through his high school graduation in 2000. As a teenager, he was active in his church youth group and other school groups. His dream has always been to work in law enforcement. Niebla graduated from the police academy and is certified to be a police officer in Colorado.

At 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Apr. 28, Niebla was awoken by his crying mother and told, “The police are here for you.”

The ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers were not there as co-workers, or to offer him his dream job. Instead, they were there to enforce the law upon him.

His crime: growing up in the United States, but having been born in Culiacán, Mexico.

The March

On Saturday, May 1, around 350 people marched down Main Street in Longmont to peacefully demonstrate the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform, to oppose the type of legislation that Arizona recently implemented with SB 1070, and to speak out against the flaws of the U.S. immigration system that punishes young people like Edgar for not being born on the right soil.

It is because of stories like Edgar’s that they march; it is because of their support, petitioning, and persuading that Edgar is now on temporary release.

Niebla has been an active community organizer and leader in the grassroots efforts for U.S. immigration reform. He was not, however, able to participate in the marches as he was arrested three days before the demonstrations were slated to occur.

The march ended in Roosevelt Park at the Cinco de Mayo festival and was one of hundreds of similar May Day marches throughout the country. Reform Immigration For America has been ramping up its efforts in the wake of Arizona’s landmark immigration bill and was the umbrella organization that orchestrated the May Day marches nationwide.Their Colorado branch, along with El Comite and L.Y.F.E. organized this particular march.

What was unique about Longmont’s march was the youth initiative. This march was one of several recent activities supported by L.Y.F.E. (Longmont Youth For Equality). The group of marchers was a diverse mixture of ages and races chanting phrases in Spanish and English.

“Si se puede.”
(“Yes we can.”)

“El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido.”
(“The people united will never be divided.”)

Sonia Marquez, an organizer for both L.Y.F.E. and Reform Immigration For America, explains the focus of their recently increased activism.

“(Niebla) was what is considered a dreamer. DREAM Act students are people who have been brought here at a young age by their parents, with no choice of their own,” Marquez says. “… if you just try to ship them to Mexico, that is not their home. That’s not what they know, many of them don’t even speak the language.”

The DREAM Act (The Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2009. The bill would’ve given a 6-year-long pathway to citizenship for immigrants who were brought here illegally before they were 16 years old. The goal of the act is to provide these young people the ability to enlist in the military or attend college at in-state tuition rates.

The bill failed to pass last year, but it is still at the forefront of immigration reform conversations. Today, the three-day-long Dream Conference is kicking off at the University of New Mexico. The goal of the conference is to discuss the next steps for the re-introduction of the bill. Comprehensive immigration reform has been taken off the agenda this year due to approaching midterm elections in November, as President Obama recently said that “there may not be an appetite to dive into another controversial issue.”

Many of the kids who marched on Saturday have spent their whole lives in Longmont and have seen the devastating effects that the system has had on so many of their families and friends’ families, which has spurred them to become involved.

“Often, as Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, they [the legalized immigrants] forget or they don’t look at it as their problem,” Marquez says, “Regardless of where you stand on immigration, whether for or against it, we know that they system is broken. And, the laws that are in place are not working.”

Opinions on the immigration debate usually fall somewhere on a wide-ranging spectrum. Both ends of this spectrum tend to agree on one thing: the system needs to be overhauled. Dan Hayes, the main proponent and backer of ballot initiative I-300 in Denver, has made no attempts to hide his opposition of the liberal immigration stances. While he and Marquez both say that the system is flawed, their views diverge from there.

“I do think on a federal level they’ve really been asleep at the wheel and we’re paying the cost,” Hayes says.

The cost he is referring to is educating illegal immigrant children. His solution to their education, however, is opposite of Marquez’s.

“Each child is about $5,000 to $6,000 to educate. It’s a huge unfunded mandate,” Hayes says.

Edgar’s Situation

Edgar Niebla came to the U.S. at the age of 7 along with is mother, father, and two older sisters. The whole family applied for citizenship together and so when the three women received the letters that approved their citizenship status, Niebla assumed his papers, as well his father’s, were on their way. Instead, through an unknown legal loophole, both men were denied. There is no explanation given with a denial letter; it is simple a yes or a no.

He re-applied and was denied a second time about a month ago. Several weeks after his second denial, 12 to 15 ICE officers appeared at his home.

Through a cohesive effort by people around the country pressuring the federal systems of power, Niebla was freed on a temporary release from the Aurora Detention Center the evening following his arrest, Thursday, Apr. 29, at 6 p.m.

Yesterday, Niebla’s lawyer, Laura Lichter, informed him that he has been given a year stay of deportation. The stay gives him a year to appeal and get his status changed before being deported. Carl Rusnok, communications director for the central region of ICE, which is based in Dallas, said he could not comment on any individual case due to privacy laws. However, he was allowed to explain what a stay means.

“Those stays generally last for about a year. They are awarded on a case-by-case basis. There are millions of different cases,” Rusnok says. “Each case has to be individually reviewed. Unless there’s some sort of criminal activity or anything else like that, the stay of deportation lasts for a year.”

Niebla realizes how fortunate he is compared to many others who find themselves in similar situations.

“The thing that upsets me the most is not that it happened to me, because luckily I had a lot of support from a whole bunch of organizations, millions of people calling, e-mailing, texting the Obama administration, and that’s awesome that I was able to walk out from ICE because it doesn’t happen,” Niebla says. “But… you know it’s happening everyday to people that don’t have the support, that all they have is a job, and they got reported, and picked up, and they don’t have the support that I did. You know that it is unfortunate because it is hard working people.”

The Forward Focus

Not only did the students and youth of L.Y.F.E. speak out for Niebla, but they have spent three weeks conducting “pass the hat” donation events to help fund trips to D.C., Arizona, and other demonstration locations. Within that time, they successfully raised $15,000 and were able to send six people, including Sonia Marquez, to Phoenix last week to camp out with people staying at the capitol there.

“We really became one with them, we showed them that we support them, because we know that the nation is watching what is happening in Arizona and all these far right conservatives are going to be looking at that and they’re going to be getting ideas.”

Because of this, Marquez sees this as a crucial time for the projection of the immigration issue. While she calls what happened in Arizona “a tragedy,” she also sees the opportunity.

“The beauty of it is that it is a blessing in disguise because the people there are waking up. I felt it, I saw it it…I was there. They’re realizing what they need to do to take back their state, to be treated fair and justly,” Marquez says.

To read the rest of the article, head over to New Era News.

Additional reporting by Sarah Stern

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