Cases from Swift raid still pending in Greeley three years later
By Laressa Bachelor
On Dec. 12, 2006, Olivia packed her lunch, kissed her 6-month-old son goodbye and headed to work at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Greeley. Soon after her shift began, a supervisor told workers in the decontamination section that it was time for a break. Once in the cafeteria, Olivia realized it was instead an immigration raid.
"An agent climbed onto a table and said, 'This is a Christmas gift for those of you who don't have papers,'" said Olivia. "I was very afraid because I thought I was never going to see my son and husband again."
Three years later, many families live in immigration limbo - unable to work, to leave or to feed their children, and uncertain if their next court date will result in a work permit or deportation. The majority live in fear that at anytime someone will take away their loved ones, regardless of their immigration status.
In spite of that fear, a number of people affected by the raid agreed to talk to Viva Colorado to reveal their realities. We are not using their last names to protect them from reprisals.
"I hope people become more aware of our situation and see that we come only to work and realize the American dream," said Brenda, whose husband was picked up in the Swift raid and again two years later in what one judge has ruled an illegal effort to round up undocumented immigrants.
"We don't come to take people's jobs. If that were the case, the fields and meatpacking plans would be filled with workers who are citizens."
The raid terrorized the Hispanic immigrant community in Greeley and angered many activists like Sylvia Martinez who attempted to get information from officials and was instead handed a sheet of paper with a 1-800 phone number.
"I just saw [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] buses rolling through and people being carted off like animals, chained and shackled," she said. "It was devastating to see kids crying for their parents, wives for their husbands, husbands for their wives. We did not know who was taken, where they were taken or how many were taken."
For more than three hours ICE agents questioned 800 Swift workers, including many who were in the country legally. Outside, heavily armed federal agents backed by riot-clad local police surrounded the plant.
Olivia was among the 252 people arrested. Of those, 75 were deported that night, in many cases without the opportunity to call their families or to appear before an immigration judge. About 80 people were taken to detention centers in Denver and El Paso, Texas. In the subsequent months, dozens posted bail, pending deportation hearings.
Of the 21 people arrested on criminal charges in Greeley, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck prosecuted 18. All 18 cases have been resolved, according to Jennifer Finch, community relations director at the Weld County DA's office.
The Greeley raid was part of an ICE operation that also targeted Swift facilities in Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Utah. Agents questioned more than 12,000 people, though they had civil warrants for only 133 named individuals, according to a report by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union released in June.
In total ICE arrested 1,297 workers on administrative immigration violations. Of those, 274 were charged with criminal violations related to identity theft or other violations, according to the latest ICE report on the operation released in March 2007. The report also indicates that of those taken into custody, 649 were deported.
There is no current information on the number of cases still working through the immigration courts.
"That case happened a long time ago and is pretty much completed from our perspective," said ICE spokesman Tim Counts.
A month and a half after the raid, no official accounting left families with little or no information from authorities on the whereabouts of their missing members.
Olivia was conditionally released that evening, but it was the beginning of three years of hardship for her family. She, her husband, Isaias, and their son, Eric, live in her brother-in-law's house. On the day of the raid, five people who lived in the home were arrested, including one of Isaias' brother who had a work permit. The two who did not have documents chose to return to Guatemala a month after the raid. One has already come back to reunite with his wife and children, while the youngest brother remains in Guatemala working in the fields with his parents.
Isaias said that everyone in the house is now fearful of going outside because they don't want to experience what his brothers went through: "Being treated like terrorists" by ICE agents.
Brenda, whose husband, Jose, has been arrested twice - once in 2006 at Swift and again in 2008 over his tax returns - shares this fear.
"I am afraid to even answer the door," she said. "One does not know when or where this can happen, and each time we have to pay more than a thousand dollars bail."
Brenda and Jose had been married only a month when he was arrested at Swift. ICE agents took him and others to a large warehouse in Aurora for processing. They were held, handcuffed inside the bus until 1 a.m., he said. They were not allowed to call families or lawyers for three days.
"They took 40 of us to a small room and left us there for 24 hours. We couldn't sleep because there wasn't enough space. We took turns, while one stood, another had a spot to sit and sleep a little," Jose said. "They were not ready to house so many people at one time."
Unlike most of the immigrants arrested at Swift, Jose, who has lived in Colorado for more than 13 years, speaks English. He tried to find out what was going on, but agents would not provide him any information.
"I was worried because I thought that if they had my file and address, maybe they were going to go to my house to arrest my wife and daughter," he said.
Jose was in jail through Christmas and New Year's. Family members traveled from Fort Morgan and from Mexico to visit him at the Aurora facility where he was being held.
His wife did not visit for fear of arrest, even though she had big news. While Jose was incarcerated, Brenda found out she was pregnant. She found work as a janitor to support herself and her daughter. Jose got a job in construction when she was seven months along.
"At the beginning I was scared because I didn't know if they would arrest me again for working," Jose said. "But there is no other way to forge ahead. I couldn't just sit there to see what was going to happen with my case."
Two years later, two men dressed in suits knocked on their trailer door. His wife and little girl watched as agents of the Weld County Sheriff's Office arrested Jose for identity theft.
As part of "Operation Number Games," the office of the Weld County DA had confiscated the tax returns and information pertaining to 4,900 clients from Amalia's Translation and Tax Services in Greeley. Jose was one of 60 clients accused of using false or stolen identities to file their taxes.
"A couple of days [after the arrests], people knew what was happening and that if they had done their taxes at Amalia's there was a chance they would be arrested, so they left," said Jose. He added that some moved to other states while others went back to their countries.
But "those who were accused of identity theft were told not to leave their county of residence because they are part of the ongoing legal proceedings," said Alonzo Barrón, an Al Frente de Lucha volunteer. "Now they are trapped without being able to work."
The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the validity of the search Number Games warrant.
Larimer County District Judge James Hiatt ruled in April that the search was illegal because tax records are confidential under federal law. The Weld County DA appealed the case to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled on Dec. 14 that authorities violated the constitutional and privacy rights of suspected undocumented immigrants when they used tax returns to build identity theft cases against them.
Meanwhile, without proper documentation, Olivia is not allowed to work. In order to eat her family depends almost entirely on the help they receive from Al Frente de Lucha (At the Front of the Fight), which has helped the families affected by the raids in Greeley from the beginning.
Al Frente de Lucha, headed by long-time activist Ricardo Romero and by University of Northern Colorado professor Priscilla Falcón, has been assisting families affected by both the 2006 and 2008 operations. Romero and two other activists founded the center in 1970 to help at-risk teens.
Immediately following the Swift raid and for another year and a half, the center served more than 200 families daily, providing food and toiletries, according to Barrón. They now assist 30 families, 8 from the 2006 raid and 22 from Operation Number Games.
Once a week, those families pick up food. At Thanksgiving, volunteers distributed 21 turkey dinners, Barrón said.
He added that since 2006 the center has received an estimated $58,000 in donations for food and $28,000 for toiletries. The Family of Christ Presbyterian Church in Greeley has been the main provider of funds.
"If it wasn't for their help, I don't know how we could survive," said Brenda. "Sometimes there is not much, but we share what there is."
Even though the majority of their kids are American citizens and would qualify for assistance, the families have not requested and do not receive any government aid.
Not everyone who lived through the raid in 2006 is living in immigration limbo. Some were able to get a work permit or residency.
Marlene worked at Swift for six years before her arrest in 2006. Her husband is a resident, which helped her to eventually gain her own residency.
It wasn't easy. After three difficult appearances in immigration court and more than $6,000 in attorney and other fees, she can finally work without fear of deportation.
"I am happy right now. I thank God, my husband and my lawyer who fought so I could stay here with my two daughters," she said.
Marlene chose to go back to work at Swift in 2007 because it pays better than most companies in the area, around $12.75 per hour, she said, adding that having a stable job is more important than any trauma she might have experienced during the raid.
Along with 300 other workers, mainly of Asian and African descent, Marlene works on her feet cutting meat for eight hours a day.
"If I could read and write perfectly maybe there would be other jobs. But I have to do it so our children can attend school and have a better life," she said.
The majority of those affected by the raids say that they are willing to fight to stay here to escape the hunger and violence in their home countries.
"If the gangs see you coming back from the United States, they think you have money, and if you don't give them any they kill you," said Isaias.
But he said his family will not return to Guatemala for health reasons. He and Olivia come from the poor mountain village of San Vicente in the western highlands region of Guatemala, 25 miles from the Mexican state of Chiapas. Going back could jeopardize the life of their 3-year-old son, Eric, who is a citizen and requires daily medication for his asthma.
"If we go back, we have no place to live or food to eat," Olivia said. "Here at least houses have heaters, doors and windows. Over there my house is nothing but dust and mud."
She is hopeful that she will get a work permit in her next court appearance in 2010. Though she has no money to pay a lawyer, she said she'll do anything to stay in Greeley. For now she earns money by selling tamales.