Youngsters by the thousands are entering the U.S. illegally – without their parents.
When he turned 14, Santos Herrera set out from his Guatemalan mountain village for the United States — on his own.
His relatives borrowed $8,000 for smugglers, counting on him to send home at least $400 a month to make payments.
Joined along the way by other young Guatemalans of Mayan descent, Herrera said, he rode buses through Mexico. Then, during a four-day desert trek across the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. border agents nearly caught him, he said, and for two days he hid alone, lost and terrified.
But he made it to Colorado, where he earned $5.50 an hour picking onions and up to $7 at other jobs — until June, when a Wyoming sheriff’s deputy caught him driving with no license.
“I’m here to fight for my mother, to get money so she can have an operation for her eyes. And I need to get money for my siblings so they can eat and go to school,” Herrera said.
He’s part of a growing, ragged parade of thousands of children who enter the United States illegally without their parents.
Department of Homeland Security border agents apprehend more than 113,000 children a year, data show, and find scores who are on their own. Under a 2002 law, unaccompanied children must be sent to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Some 8,212 unaccompanied children were held at these juvenile facilities this past year, up from 5,000 in 2003, according to federal officials and records.
Nobody knows how many more, like Herrera, enter without getting caught. Child-advocacy groups estimate as many as 50,000 a year slip through. Several lawyers in Denver are handling cases of unaccompanied children.
Most come from Central America, federal records show. All pose a dilemma for U.S. communities that increasingly want immigration laws enforced yet also want children treated humanely.
Because the federal government has limited space for juveniles at detention facilities — about 1,710 beds nationwide — a majority of children are released with notices to appear in court.
Last year, about 7,000 children — 88 percent of those initially detained — eventually were released, Health and Human Services spokesman Ken Wolfe said. Of those released, 2,299 were sent back to their birth countries, while about 4,927 were released into the United States to sponsoring relatives, foster homes or friends.
“We have challenges with bed capacity and services, but we work as hard as we can to make sure those in our care get good care…,” Wolfe said. “Once a child is released,” Health and Human Services “does not have oversight,” he said.
Homeland Security officials “get a lot of criticism for incarcerating unaccompanied children,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Pat Reilly said. “So there’s a special custody arrangement for these children, and that agency (Health and Human Services) has to answer for what happens to them.”
No data are kept on whether released children make it to court, officials said. Many immigration courts are swamped, and many teens become adults before their cases are resolved.
For Herrera, now 16, getting caught brought new twists in an odyssey rooted in poverty.
After the deputy nabbed him, he bounced from one adult jail in Laramie for 13 days to another, a federal immigration detention center, in Colorado for a month. Then, under pressure from a lawyer, federal authorities bused Herrera to a juvenile hall in Texas, where he was held for two more months, court records show.
Now, pending review of his case, he’s been released to the custody of a family friend in Fort Morgan, northeast of Denver. He’s living with relatives and planning to attend school.
“I pray to God I can stay, to help my family, so we don’t have to suffer in poverty anymore,” he said in a recent interview.
U.S. border agents say most unaccompanied children come to join relatives already in the country illegally.
Homeland Security “understands the sensitive nature of handling cases involving the smuggling of a child. The agency recognizes that the child is the victim and takes actions to safely return the child to his or her home country as quickly as possible,” Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Maggie Myers said.
Yet just identifying children is proving difficult because smugglers use false documents, Myers said. “Children grow and change rapidly, especially very young children. Very young children cannot speak on their own behalf so interview techniques cannot uncover inconsistencies that may reveal their true identity.”
Child advocates oppose deportations.
Children entering illegally without parents “are usually fleeing something,” often don’t have relatives here and, in many cases, have endured trauma such as rape and being held for ransom, said Tricia Swartz, director of the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children in Washington, D.C.
Across-the-board deportations “would be literally sacrificing children’s lives,” she said. “Some of them are facing potential execution by gangs.”
A privately funded $600,000 project has begun to line up pro-bono lawyers, medical and mental care, and foster families for about 1,000 children a year. Children are told to attend school and forbidden from working until their cases are decided, Swartz said.
“That gets to be difficult because they want to work.”
All sides agree the best solution would be better living conditions abroad.
The global economy “is crashing on the poor, starving them out,” said Denver-based attorney Jim Salvator, who represents Herrera and several other teens who entered illegally without their parents.
Salvator is planning to seek asylum for Herrera, claiming that if the boy were sent home, he would face gang recruiters and an economic system that confines Mayans to servitude.
Today, about 15.3 percent of migrants seeking asylum protection in the United States are under 18, up from 14.8 percent in 2004, federal records show.
Federal immigration courts, run by the Department of Justice, are adapting. In Denver’s court, a box of toys sits in the lobby. A recent memo encouraged judges to use booster chairs and child-friendly questioning at hearings.
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Federal agents forged ahead with their crackdown on employers who
hire illegal foreign workers – raiding 63 entertainment-eateries
around the country and arresting 193 janitors supplied by a
national cleaning contractor.
The raids on corporate-run chain restaurants – cultural icons
including ESPN Zone, Dave & Busters, and Hard Rock Cafe – netted
the arrest of 12 janitors in the Denver area, authorities announced
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents also arrested three
owners of the cleaning company – Nevada-based Rosenbaum-Cunningham
International Inc. – accusing them of evading $18 million in
payroll taxes and using the money to buy boats, vehicles,
racehorses, fancy homes and education for their kids.
If convicted, the owners – Florida residents – could face up to 10
years in prison and restitution to the government.
This case shows “how some employers try to beat the system and
their competition by hiring illegal workers,” said Jeff Copp, ICE
district chief based in Denver. “Bypassing immigration, tax and
labor laws are serious crimes that will be investigated and
prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The names, nationalities and locations of detained janitors weren’t
released. Immigrant-rights advocates urged ICE agents to ensure
humane treatment for families so that children returning from
school wouldn’t be alone. Colorado activists planned to gather
downtown at El Centro Humanitario para los Trabajadores on Thursday
night to pray for worker families and call for a moratorium on
The corporate-run restaurants that hired RCI to perform janitorial
services weren’t targeted.
“We’re looking for a new company for janitorial services,” ESPN
Zone spokeswoman Christine Baum said.
The Wednesday-Thursday crackdown, shortly before Congress debates
immigration, follows high-profile raids Dec. 12 that targeted
workers at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Colorado and five
ICE officials say they’re escalating worksite enforcement to remove
the jobs magnet that has drawn an estimated 8 million illegal
“There are a number of industries … that hire illegal aliens
blatantly almost as part of their business practices,” ICE
spokesman Marc Raimondi said in Washington, D.C.
While companies that used RCI janitors weren’t targeted, all U.S.
companies ought to be checking their contractors, asking to review
worker documents, Raimondi said.
This won’t insulate companies but could help keep them on the right
side of the law, he said.
“Most businesses want to do the right thing,” he said.
Now immigration analysts, who are tracking recent raids, are
considering where continued robust immigration enforcement might
“What Americans will find is they don’t have as clean an
environment to munch their burgers and fries,” said Crystal
Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers
Association, a pro-immigration group in Washington.
The eateries that employed RCI janitors “are going to find it hard
to replace the people who were removed,” Williams said. “There’s
a need for these workers.”
“As they do more raids, we will find people we take for granted,
who do work we don’t do, are bit by bit disappearing,” Williams
said. “If ICE keeps on enforcing, and Congress doesn’t do anything
to ensure there’s a legal flow of workers, we’re going to have
worker shortages in a lot of the service industries.”
Another possibility: Employers might have to pay higher wages.
“I don’t have any official numbers to draw from,” Colorado
Department of Labor and Employment senior economist Joseph Winter
said. “But if the raids are effective enough to dissuade
lower-priced workers from coming into the state, it may have some
effect on wages.”
Illegal immigrants employed by janitorial contractor
Rosenbaum-Cunningham International taken into custody
Business locations in 17 states and D.C. where raids took place
Workers arrested in Denver-area eateries ESPN Zone, Dave & Busters
and Hard Rock Cafe
The government’s high-profile crackdown on alleged identity theft
by foreign workers at Swift meatpacking plants in Colorado and five
other states faces mounting challenges in court.
A federal judge in Denver on Friday ordered immigration officials
in Colorado to account for all workers detained and deported.
U.S. District Court Judge John Kane – noting “confusion on all
sides” as to the whereabouts, legal status and even identities of
detainees – also gave the government 48 hours to hold an
immigration bond hearing for any detained worker who has not
already had one.
And Kane said any workers who signed agreements to voluntarily
return to their home countries now must be allowed to withdraw that
agreement if they wish.
“The government is on notice that this court is monitoring its
actions” in handling detainees, Kane said at a court hearing
United Food and Commercial Workers union attorneys had filed a
petition contending that arrests in the raids violated workers’
constitutional due-process rights. Immigration officials deny
No federal criminal charges have been filed in Colorado, where 261
workers were arrested at Swift’s plant in Greeley.
Simultaneous raids at Swift plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska,
Texas and Utah led to 1,282 arrests overall. Immigration and
Customs Enforcement officials on Friday said 219 face state or
federal criminal charges.
At the court hearing in Denver, Kane told Justice Department
attorneys defending the government as well as lawyers representing
unions and workers to meet and discuss the shared challenge of
sorting out who is being held where.
ICE agents conducting the raids used “a very orderly process,”
said Mark Pestal, an assistant U.S. attorney in Colorado. “The
chaos is created because (workers) are using multiple names.”
Scared workers giving armed authorities false names likely is a
factor in the confusion, said John Bowen, chief counsel
representing the union.
Now the workers “are being held improperly,” with access to
lawyers impaired, Bowen said.
“We want to make sure these people have an opportunity to find out
what their rights are,” he said. “It is important to us that
Judge Kane has made it clear he intends to ensure the process works
After the raids, federal authorities bused workers to a compound
near Denver for questioning, then to various facilities around the
country. Detained workers are thought to be held at federal
immigration detention facilities in Aurora and El Paso, Texas.
Several claimed in affidavits that the raids left them scared,
uncertain about legal options and inclined to sign voluntary
ICE agents addressed workers in Spanish. But workers, some of them
illiterate migrants who use indigenous languages as well as
Spanish, claimed in affidavits that they were unclear about what
Meatpacking workers detained during last week’s federal raids began
facing immigration judges Tuesday in Colorado and five other
Some were released after relatives posted bond of at least $1,500.
In Colorado, Judge Donn Livingston saw 27 detainees at the regional
detention facility in Aurora and set court hearings where they are
to be informed of charges against them.
Meanwhile, a federal grand jury in Minnesota indicted 20 detained
workers on criminal-immigration offenses and charges related to
Now, the immigration authorities themselves – who last week stormed
six Swift & Co. plants in Greeley and other states based on
allegations that illegal workers stole U.S. identities to get jobs
– also are facing challenges in federal courts.
Labor-union leaders representing workers in Colorado have asked a
federal judge to release them, arguing that workers were mistreated
and denied access to lawyers.
The raids constituted “an outrageous abuse of police power,” and
the government’s criminal probe into identity theft “functioned as
the Trojan horse to effectuate an immigration raid,” said a
lawsuit filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local
U.S. District Judge John Kane has ordered immigrant detainees from
the Greeley plant to remain in his jurisdiction, but the union said
some had been taken out of state. Union officials said Kane on
Tuesday asked them to provide more details of their allegations.
Some 75 out of 260 workers detained in Greeley already have been
returned to Mexico.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have filed a
legal response saying detainees were told why they were arrested,
were allowed to use phones and were advised they could get legal
ICE officials routinely move detained immigrants around the country
to find beds.
U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo called Tuesday for more raids and urged the
government to target managers who hire illegal workers.
“This kind of enforcement action by ICE has been sorely missing
over the past decade, and I urge you to expand such operations to
other industries,” Tancredo, R-Colo., wrote in a letter to ICE
Assistant Secretary Julie Myers.
“Many in the agriculture industry prefer to use illegal labor
despite the availability of legal workers through the H-2A
(temporary worker) program, which as you know has no cap. I believe
an investigation would reveal that identity theft is rampant across
many sectors and industries, not only meatpacking,” Tancredo
And “it strains credulity,” he said, to suggest that so many
illegal workers at Swift “could be employed, in six plants,
without the company’s management being aware of it,” as the
company has claimed.
New enforcement approach targets workers rather than companies
The flood from the border will continue unless government begins to hold companies accountable, say policy critics.
Homeland Security chiefs hailed last week’s raids on Swift & Co.
meatpacking plants as examples of newly aggressive work-site
enforcement against companies that rely on illegal foreign labor.
But the black-clad agents who stormed facilities in Colorado and in
five other states arrested only workers, leaving the managers who
hired them untouched. That’s increasingly the pattern in the
government’s new approach: targeting workers without holding
companies themselves accountable, as required by law, according to
government data and interviews with experts.
Fines against employers for hiring illegal workers have all but
ceased, data show, though authorities recently prosecuted a handful
of managers and executives successfully.
Until Congress demands a worker status-verification system and
enforcement that can really hold companies accountable, critics
contend, millions of job-seeking illegal immigrants can’t be
“It has become apparent how employers are complicit in this
illegal-immigration picture,” said Doris Meissner, chief of the
Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, now a
senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
“In a case like (the one involving Swift) where you are just
arresting the workers, it demonstrates how inadequate current
employer enforcement really is in reducing the availability of
jobs. The plant is up and running again,” said Meissner.
No charges had been filed against Swift officials Friday in the
crackdown on alleged identity-theft crimes involving suspected
illegal workers at slaughterhouses in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota,
Nebraska, Texas and Utah.
Some 1,300 workers were arrested, more than 100 for investigation
of possible criminal offenses. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
agents this weekend continued to question detainees, building a
case that federal prosecutors await.
The raids Tuesday brought total work-site enforcement arrests
nationwide to 4,383 this year – more than triple the 1,292 last
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared “a new
record this past year for work-site enforcement,” noting that more
than 700 of this year’s arrests were for investigation of criminal
Yet the number of employers fined each year for hiring illegal
workers has plummeted from 1,023 in 1998 to only three in 2004, the
last year for which data were given.
“We’re not really doing fines anymore,” ICE spokesman Marc
Raimondi said in Washington, D.C.
Fines against companies “were almost seen as a cost of doing
business and were not seen as effective. We prefer to conduct
criminal investigations,” Raimondi said. “We’re having
unprecedented successes in conducting work-site enforcement investigations.”
On Thursday, two executives of a California fencebuilding company
pleaded guilty to hiring unauthorized workers.
In October, the president and two executives of two
temporary-labor companies pleaded guilty in Ohio to conspiring to
provide hundreds of illegal workers to an air cargo firm.
In July, officials at Kentucky-based corporations pleaded guilty
to immigration and money-laundering charges in an operation that
supplied illegal workers to Holiday Inn, Days Inn and other hotels
Also in July, Fischer Homes subcontractors pleaded guilty to
harboring illegal immigrants for construction work in Kentucky.
Two high-profile crackdowns this year included raids in Colorado,
yet those cases still are pending.
ICE officials have filed charges against seven officials of
Houston-based IFCO Systems North America, which supplied wooden
pallets. ICE agents arrested 1,187 IFCO workers nationwide after a
year-long probe that found more than half of IFCO’s workers in 2005
had invalid or mismatched Social Security numbers.
No information was available on the status of a case in which
dozens of suspected illegal workers for Hunt Building Co.
subcontractors were deported after raids at a military-housing
construction site near top-secret installations east of Denver.
The problem is that, despite a few exceptions, federal immigration
agents in general “aren’t doing the regular work of going after
the employers who hire illegal (workers). They’re trying for only
very spectacular things,” said Steve Camarota, research director
at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors
“Americans are harmed by this, the Americans who have to send
their kids to overcrowded schools because of illegal aliens, the
Americans who face the job competition, who tend to be the poorest,
least-educated and most vulnerable American workers. The Americans
who are uninsured and don’t get health care because of all the
illegal aliens who need it,” he said.
It’s now well accepted among immigration experts that jobs are the
magnet that draws illegal workers from low-income countries into
the United States.
But employers who hire illegal workers “should be punished,” said
Meissner, the former INS chief. But holding them fairly accountable
requires a better status-verification and ID system, she said.
“If you are really going to have employer enforcement work,
everybody who applies for work, including U.S. citizens, has to
have an ID with biometric information. I believe most employers
want a reliable system – on the condition that they also have
access to labor.”
Lawyers and activists say detainees may have legal rights, but they don’t know who is being held or where.
Greeley – Federal agents deported scores of illegal workers
Thursday, continuing their crackdown on the alleged hijacking of
U.S. citizens’ identities at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants here
and around the country.
At a court hearing in Greeley, headquarters for Swift, five
shackled workers in orange jumpsuits stood as Weld County District
Judge Gilbert Gutierrez advised them through an interpreter of
forgery and criminal impersonation charges they face.
Nationwide, more than 100 workers now have been arrested for
investigation of criminal charges ranging from immigration
violations to identity-related offenses as a result of the 10-month federal probe.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials couldn’t give a
breakdown of suspected crimes, but they said arrests on criminal
charges will increase as agents interview more detainees, building
Total arrests in Swift plants around the country topped 1,300 – but
most were for routine administrative immigration violations.
“This was a major identity-theft scheme that was taken down. It used to be people would use fake IDs. These are IDs with real numbers. Additional criminal charges will be forthcoming,” ICE spokesman Jeff Dishart said in
Swift officials who employed the workers at plants in Colorado,
Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas and Utah have not been charged,
Dishart said. Whether Swift will face any charges in this case “is
hard to say. The investigation continues,” he said.
Meanwhile, immigration attorneys, religious groups and labor-union leaders lambasted ICE for causing unnecessary suffering. They
complained that lawyers interested in representing detained workers
who may have legal rights haven’t been able to learn who is being
held or where.
ICE agents have whisked detainees to various federal and county
jails that cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security. Many
have been returned to Mexico and other home countries under a
procedure known as voluntary departure.
“Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that many of the immigrants may
have felt pressured into signing papers, waiving their rights, and
may be in the process of being returned before they ever had a
chance to consult with a lawyer,” said Donna Lipinski, a
spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a
pro-immigration advocacy group in Washington.
A Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network delegation visited the
regional Homeland Security detention center in Aurora and learned
at least 80 detainees at that facility had been sent out of the
country, said Kim Salinas, a Fort Collins-based immigration
attorney who participated.
Some detainees in Colorado were bused through the mountains west of
Denver to county jails in Salida and Fairplay that are approved to
hold immigrants when the federal facility is full.
Federal agents hauled in 62 workers from Swift to the Park County
jail in Fairplay, then took 38 of them away again before noon
Wednesday and the rest on Thursday, Park County Attorney Steve
Groome said. “We have no idea where they were going,” Groome
said. “We had to do some moving, but everybody had a bed. A lot of
them were picked up before they were processed.”
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 lawyers “can’t serve
our members, can’t provide them with legal counsel, because we
don’t know where they are,” said Dave Minshall, spokesman for the
Tuesday’s raid at the Greeley plant was overblown for a case that
led to 11 criminal arrests, Minshall said. ICE officials “brought
in a battalion – shotguns, bulletproof vests, snipers on a roof –
for 11 people? … Identity theft is a terrible thing. But 11
ICE officials defended their actions, asking for patience as agents
go about interviewing detainees as carefully as possible, gathering
“We don’t have 1,300 people to interview each of the people who
were arrested. We have a limited number of people, so the
processing takes longer than a couple hours,” ICE regional
spokesman Carl Rusnok said.
Detainees “will be able to get that legal access as soon as the
processing is complete.” They also have access to telephones “as
long as they pay for long distance,” he said.
Reality hit hard for the first detainees moving into courts.
In the Weld County courtroom, tears trickled down Karina Bartolo’s
face as she spotted her father Cirilo Bartolo in the crowd.
He’d heard from her once after she was arrested Tuesday during work
at the meat plant. She’d said she was surrounded by mothers crying
for their kids.
On Thursday, his daughter and the other four defendants asked Judge
Gutierrez for free legal representation. He set bail at $30,000
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput sent out a letter concerning the
raids late Thursday.
“These kinds of raids do not and cannot fix our broken immigration
system. In some ways, they only aggravate our national confusion
over immigration policy. Our country needs comprehensive
immigration reform, and we need it immediately,” Chaput wrote in
the letter, sent to pastors across northern Colorado.
“Maria of Guadalupe told us that she came to hear and remedy all
of our sorrows. I ask her today to intercede for all our immigrant
families, especially those that have been broken apart by these
“Unblinking reality” dizzying for spouses, kids of detainees
Greeley – Isabel Ramirez wept as she clutched her 18- month-old
daughter, Brenda, in the ramshackle trailer park where she lives.
Her husband, Juan, had been detained in the Immigration and Customs
Enforcement raid on the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant where he
worked, and she didn’t know where he was.
“He was the only one working. He paid for everything, the bills,
rent. I have three kids,” 33-year- old Isabel Ramirez said.
As she spoke, her 7-year-old daughter, Laura, was at school, and
her 3-year-old son, Juanito, kicking muddy snow by the trailer, was
having a very bad day.
His father “is in jail,” Juanito said. He threw a stick angrily
down at the snow and turned and banged his head against the side of
a broken trampoline.
As authorities began deporting workers rounded up in raids at
meatpacking plants here and in five other states, this city, which
for decades has run on illegal labor from Mexico, confronted an
unexpected challenge: what to do about kids left behind.
The raids left more than 100 children with no parents present,
church officials and community organizers said. Hundreds more
struggled in newly broken families, asking questions such as
“Where is my daddy?” and “Why does immigration exist?”
A niece and cousin whose deported husbands had phoned from Mexico
tried to console Juanito Ramirez and his mother. One drove to a
regional immigration jail east of Denver and begged for
information, to no avail.
Isabel Ramirez acknowledged that her son and 18-month-old daughter
are the only ones in her immediate family legally entitled to be in
This was the hard side of the sudden pressure ICE agents brought to
bear on Swift here and in Texas, Utah, Minnesota, Nebraska and
The agents who conducted simultaneous raids Tuesday tried their
best when interviewing detainees to determine whether they had
children, said ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok. “We do everything in our
power to avoid having children left home alone or at school,” he
Still, “violating federal law can lead to tragic consequences,
sometimes affecting a great many people. That’s the unblinking
reality,” U.S. Attorney Troy Eid said in Denver.
Meanwhile, few if any relatives of detained workers turned to
government social- services agencies for help – mistrusting any
Under new state and federal laws, “we can only provide assistance
to citizens – citizens only – and qualified aliens who have been
here for five years,” said John Kruse, assistant payments
administrator for Weld County Social Services.
Instead, friends and relatives worked their cellphones busily
trying to bypass government, keeping children whose parents weren’t
present in hiding, fearing that social-services agents would snatch
Naturalized U.S. citizen David Silva, an oil-field worker who used
to work at the meatpacking plant, said he was able to retrieve his
wife, Marisela, from a federal immigration detention center in
Denver late Tuesday by driving to the center and presenting her
legal residency papers.
Now with wrists bruised from handcuffs, Marisela was taking the day
off “trying to build up her confidence.” She joined others from
Mexico volunteering to take care of children whose parents were
Inside the meatpacking plant, “there was a lady crying because she
didn’t have anybody else here,” Silva said. “She asked my wife if
she wanted to adopt her child. Then she was taken away.”
Anglo citizens came forward offering to do the same around noon at
Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church. “We are all affected deeply.
But our most immediate concerns are for families that are suddenly
separated and for children who have no understanding of what is
happening in their lives,” the Rev. Bernie Schmitz said.
Temporarily adopting children of detained or deported workers “is
why we came here,” said Kris Kessinger, 45, a city traffic worker
whose wife is from Mexico.
Weld County school officials who saw attendance drop to 75 percent
during Tuesday’s raids, when Greeley residents flocked to the
meatpacking factory, said classrooms were about 90 percent full
Wednesday. But they had no way of knowing which children might be
without their parents. “We’ve asked ICE to provide a list (of
people arrested),” principal Paul Urioste said at Billie Martinez
Elementary School. “ICE hasn’t provided us with anything.”
Separately, the United Way of Weld County set up a fund for
affected families. The agency is accepting donations at P.O. Box
1944, Greeley, CO 80632, or donors can call 970-353-4300.
For Isabel Ramirez at her trailer, crying regularly gave her relief
as she, with borrowed cellphone in hand, waited for word from her
husband. Heading back to the family farm in central Mexico looked
likely, she said.
She tried to persuade her troubled little boy to cry instead of
banging his head.
“It’s OK to cry,” she told him.
“No. I’m embarrassed,” the 3-year-old said.
“If you feel sad, you should cry.”
“It hurts my heart,” Juanito said, delicately pointing to his
GREELEY SITE PART OF FEDS’ 6-STATE STING SEEKING ILLEGAL WORKERS
Greeley – After massive raids on Swift & Co. meatpacking plants
here and in five other states, immigration authorities are building
a new kind of case against illegal workers: accusing them of
hijacking the identities of U.S. citizens.
Authorities contend workers bought or stole names and Social
Security numbers of U.S. citizens and legal residents and used them
to get jobs at Swift plants here and in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska,
Texas and Utah.
“The issue here is that U.S. citizens have been victimized by
illegal aliens,” said Carl Rusnok, spokesman for U.S. Immigration
and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security.
“This is a situation where it’s not just getting fraudulent
identification. It’s actually stealing U.S. identities.”
Some local district attorneys around the country have tried to
fight illegal immigration using identity-theft, criminal
impersonation and forgery statutes. Tuesday’s simultaneous raids
mark the first time ICE agents working on a national scale have
made identity theft the focus of a major worksite investigation.
Armed federal agents at dawn surrounded Swift’s plants in Greeley
and elsewhere, rounding up thousands of workers, questioning
hundreds of them and detaining an undetermined number. At the
Greeley plant, agents loaded detained workers onto four white,
45-seat buses and drove them away.
Tuesday’s raids capped a 10-month federal investigation into
identity theft involving immigrant workers at Greeley-based Swift.
In March, federal officials issued subpoenas for 1,500 employment
records, and the company cooperated, Swift president and chief
executive Sam Rovit said.
“We offered repeatedly to make ourselves available in any way or
to manage any criminal behavior and couldn’t get a meeting until
September,” Rovit said. “They were absolutely unwilling to
Rovit said investigators told the company that complaints of
identity theft filed with the Federal Trade Commission matched up
with 170 Swift workers. Yet Tuesday’s raids, he said, disrupted the
work of 7,000 employees nationwide.
“If they did know who those 170 were, they could have gone and
identified them and taken them away,” Rovit said. “We don’t see
why they had to come in to do something that was this highly
The company, he said, has never knowingly hired an illegal
No charges filed Tuesday
Starting as soon as today, some detained immigrants may be deported
without being charged with identity crimes. Authorities are
considering filing criminal charges against others, Rusnok said. No
charges were filed Tuesday.
Swift is one of the world’s largest meat-processing companies, with
$9.4 billion in annual sales. No one at Swift has been charged with
a crime. “We do not believe that we will be charged with anything
or fined for anything,” Rovit said.
The raids turned the lives of workers and their families
upside-down and reignited the immigration debate from factory fence
lines to Congress.
Parents and siblings of Greeley workers flocked to the factory
after hearing of the raids.
“How am I supposed to explain to the children that their dad’s not
coming home?” 27-year-old Sara Zarate said, crying as she peered
through the gray fence at the factory. Her husband, Candido, is an
illegal immigrant from Guatemala whose $12.20-an-hour wage at the
plant supports them and their five children.
The four buses, with green stripes on the sides, had just rumbled
away. Zarate didn’t know if her husband was on one or where the
buses would go.
“Who’s going to help me and my kids on Christmas? They’re
expecting their dad on Christmas,” she said.
Meanwhile, Greeley activist Joy Breuer, who opposes illegal
immigration, welcomed the raids.
“I’m all for what happened today,” Breuer said. “We need to
start obeying the laws around here. A lot of people are saying the
town is falling apart.”
Breuer blames illegal immigration for various problems around
Greeley: an overburdened health-care system and increased gang
activity and drug sales.
City officials worried about economic damage.
“I’m concerned this will affect how people will view our community
– employers as well as people coming here to live,” Mayor Tom
Selders said. “I’m concerned that this be done with respect for
people’s civil rights.”
The economic and humanitarian harm inflicted by Tuesday’s raids
“is what happens when we have a do-nothing Congress which refuses
to act,” U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar said. “What is happening at Swift
… sends a strong signal to Congress that we must act with all due
speed to enact comprehensive immigration reform. When Democrats
take control in January, I hope today’s occurrences will motivate
us to act.”
An all-but-open secret
A labor union filed for an injunction in court shortly after the
raids began around 7 a.m.
The use of falsified documents to get work in Greeley and other
meatpacking towns has been an all-but-open secret for years.
Even factory supervisors know about it, said former Swift worker
David Silva, 35, a naturalized U.S. citizen now working in oil
fields, whose wife, Marisela, 32, was detained.
“I don’t know where they took her,” Silva said. “My kids?
They’ve never been to Mexico. They don’t even know that country.”
Federal Social Security Administration officials over the past five
years sent out 8 million “mismatch” letters to employers
nationwide flagging possible problems with worker-identifying
Under federal immigration law, it’s up to companies to verify the
legal status of workers. Swift officials say they participated in a
government pilot program to make such checks.
ICE agents began their investigation in February.
Investigators used Federal Trade Commission records to track
workers using names and numbers of U.S. citizens. Then they
contacted the U.S. citizens – who in many cases indicated a
willingness to press charges, according to some 25 search
affidavits filed in Weld County Court.
“ICE takes very seriously aliens who use false IDs, and especially
those who steal identities, to illegally gain employment,” said
Jeffrey Copp, ICE special agent in charge in Denver.
In Congress, there has been no resolution of the immigration issues
that dominated debate this year. Lawmakers still are divided.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who strongly opposes illegal
immigration, issued a statement congratulating law enforcement
agencies involved in Tuesday’s raids.
“My hope at this point is that the U.S. government has the courage
to prosecute the Swift & Co. executives who may have been complicit
in their hiring,” Tancredo said.
ICE officials said they would offer details about the raids at a
news conference this morning in Washington.
Staff writers Christine Tatum, Christopher N. Osher and David
Migoya contributed to this report.
Recent immigration raids
September 2006: Agents arrest 120 suspected illegal workers at a
Buckley Air Force Base housing project.
April 2006: Agents arrest 38 undocumented workers at pallet-supply
company IFCO Systems in Commerce City. Raids occur simultaneously
at IFCO plants in 25 other states, resulting in a total of 1,200
July 2003: Federal agents arrest 31 civilian workers at the Air
Force Academy for using false identification to enter the facility.
Most are believed to be illegal immigrants.
September 2002: Agents arrest 110 Denver International Airport
workers, mostly illegal immigrants, for using fake or stolen Social
October 2006: Agents arrest 28 undocumented workers in a raid on
Torrey Farms in Barker, N.Y., about 40 miles east of Buffalo.
September 2006: In a week-long sweep, more than 161 illegal
immigrants are captured in southwestern Florida. Separately, agents
raid a chicken-processing plant and several homes in and around
Emanuel County, Ga., arresting more than 120 undocumented workers.
September 2006: Agents raid a chicken-processing plant and several
homes in and around Emanuel County, Ga. More than 120 undocumented
workers are arrested.
August 2006: Agents and Houston immigration officers arrest 326
immigrants during a week-long operation in Texas.
Sources: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Nexis
COMPILED BY BARBARA HUDSON OF THE DENVER POST RESEARCH LIBRARY
Repatriation offered to those in Denver with serious medical needs
Some illegal immigrants are wary of accepting the free trips back, fearing the care would be substandard or unreliable.
Hundreds of Mexican illegal immigrants are in Colorado not just for
work but also for free medical care they say they can’t get back
home. Now, Mexican officials have agreed to bring some home and
help them find doctors there.
But many of these illegal immigrants – including Eloina Meza, a
single mother of a disabled boy featured in the Nov. 13 Denver Post
– see little incentive to return to a country where comparable
opportunities don’t exist.
Juan Marcos Gutierrez, Mexico’s consul general in Denver, confirmed
a new deal negotiated with Dr. Patricia Gabow, chief of the Denver
Health and Hospital Authority.
Under the agreement, Denver health workers who provide kidney
dialysis to illegal immigrants are guiding those who are willing to
Mexico’s consulate in Denver.
The immigrants are told they can receive free travel home and help
finding appropriate health care – though they get no assurance it
will be free.
Mexican officials also will repatriate other illegal immigrants
with serious medical needs besides failing kidneys, Gutierrez said.
He said he didn’t know how many immigrants might qualify.
“I won’t repatriate someone with the flu or a cold,” he said.
“We are talking chronic diseases, difficult medical conditions.”
The goal, Gutierrez said, is to “give an option to our nationals.
But it is not my duty … to relieve (U.S.) hospital budgets.”
He pointed out that illegal immigrants often pay taxes that support
public health care here.
Denver health officials are prohibited by law from checking the
legal status of immigrants they serve. But records show about 1,500
emergency-room patients a year are unable to give a U.S. Social
Security number for billing purposes.
Many still seek treatment here despite a new state law that bars
hospitals from giving publicly funded, nonemergency health care to
illegal immigrants. Those immigrants now are treated as uninsured,
Gabow said several patients already have been sent to the
consulate. Six were in the process of heading home to continue
dialysis treatment in Mexico, according to Mexican officials.
Yet many illegal immigrants are reluctant to rely on Mexico’s
government, saying that Mexico’s poverty, inequality and widespread
lack of access to medical care drove many of them north in the
“(The government’s offer) is nice. I like the idea. But here, I
trust the doctors more. I trust everyone here more,” said a 32-
year-old illegal-immigrant aircraft-maintenance worker who spoke on
condition of anonymity, fearing authorities would use his name to
The worker’s 7-year-old son was born with major deformities that
blocked his breathing and required more than a dozen surgeries.
“I’d like to live in Mexico. It’s my country,” the man said. But
his son “was born here, and he gets all the medical support.”
His son now thrives at a Colorado Springs-area school. He and his
father recently visited doctors in Leon, Mexico, to investigate
possibilities for treatment.
The father said the Mexican doctor told them, “I recommend you
finish all the medical stuff in the United States. Your doctors
there know him. He’s got pretty serious problems with his jaw that
will require plastic surgery.”
In another case, a Denver-area family that includes several illegal
immigrants – and a U.S.- born 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy
and heart trouble – initially refused to accept public benefits out
of pride. But then they saw huge bills from Denver Health for brain
scans the boy needed after seizures.
Now they rely on Medicaid to pay these bills, though the father
holds a job that has allowed them to afford a home. There’s no way
the family would return to Mexico, said Gisela, 21, the boy’s
“He’s not going to get any of the medical services he needs
there,” she said, because he lacks a Mexican birth certificate.
“And even if he was, they would not be as good as they are
The medical agreement was in the works before Eloina Meza came
forward with her story in The Post, but Mexican officials revealed
their new policy last week after learning of the plight of Meza and
her son Edgar, a U.S. citizen who suffers from Down syndrome and
congenital heart defects.
Illegally in the country for 12 years, Meza recently tried to
surrender to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at
their offices in an effort to have a judge review her case and
allow her to stay legally in Denver. The agents refused.
Charged with hunting for criminal immigrants and terrorists, they
were reluctant to divert energy to process Meza, ICE officials
said, defending a policy against accepting “walk-ins” who seek
permission to stay.
Under U.S. law, immigrants here illegally for more than 10 years
who can prove a pressing humanitarian need can be allowed to stay
in the country legally if a judge reviews their case.
Meza has stayed here to keep Edgar alive. He had a series of
surgeries, and doctors say he needs regular checkups and drugs to
survive and that returning to Mexico could threaten his life.
“We’re very interested in helping this lady,” said Jorge
Gonzalez, chief of protection services at the consulate. “If she
doesn’t have the possibility to stay, I will try to arrange medical
care in Mexico.”
Meza has agreed to meet with Mexican officials. But she wants her
lawyer, Francesca Ramos, to meet with them first. She’s resolved
that, no matter what, the fragile little boy she loves must
“Why all of a sudden does the Mexican consulate take an interest
in a case like this?” she asked. “Why didn’t they offer help to
Mexicans that are here in this situation before? I do not
understand the motive behind this meeting and do not have much
Next entries »
Case exposes odd twist: Feds usually reject those who surrender
Federal agents who hunt for illegal immigrants have a policy
against arresting those who voluntarily turn themselves in – as
Eloina Meza discovered recently in Denver.
After hiding for 12 years, Meza mustered her courage and approached
immigration agents at their offices – “I saw the security, the
police, the cameras up around the room” – and tried to surrender.
Her son, Edgar, 8, a U.S. citizen who suffers from Down syndrome
and heart trouble, needs her constantly. A single mother, Meza had
grown increasingly worried that, if immigration agents were to
catch her, she and Edgar could be separated.
Instead, she wanted to turn herself in and have a judge review her
case so that she might stay legally in Denver with her son.
But immigration officials on Sept. 14 turned Meza and Edgar away.
“I was saying, ‘I am here illegally.’ They wouldn’t take me in,”
she said. “I thought they’d at least ask some questions.”
Meza, 44, crossed the border from Mexico in 1994. She has worked
several jobs around Denver, from $4.50-an-hour packaging in a
warehouse to a stint with the U.S. Postal Service.
Her situation exposes an odd dimension to the nation’s newly
beefed-up immigration enforcement system: The same agents who labor
to find illegal immigrants on the streets and in jails – they
caught and deported 100,100 noncriminal immigrants such as Meza
last year – generally won’t accept those who surrender asking for
“Walk-ins” taken in past
The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement division “must use its limited resources and
prioritize its mission to target aliens that are the greatest
threat to the community – criminal aliens and terrorists,” ICE
spokesman Carl Rusnok said.
Yet ICE agents around the country have some discretion, according
to a 2005 ICE legal memo. Denver agents in the past did accept
“walk-ins” but have discontinued that practice.
A Sept. 14 letter from Meza’s attorney, Francesca Ramos, asks Jeff
Copp, ICE’s Denver district special agent in charge, for “your
assistance in having Ms. Meza placed in removal proceedings without
The goal, Ramos wrote, “is to seek cancellation of removal to
ensure that she will not be separated from her very ill son.”
ICE officials gave no response. The Postal Service confirmed her
letter was delivered Sept. 15.
Immigrant-rights advocates call the ICE turn-away policy inhumane.
“You ought to be able to turn yourself in,” said Robert Deasy,
spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association in
Meza probably “is entitled” to stay in the country with her son
under immigration-law provisions that grant legal status to people
in the country illegally for more than 10 years who also can prove
an exceptional humanitarian need, Deasy said, “but the enforcement
priorities of the Department of Homeland Security do not appear to
include enforcement activities that will benefit a deserving
U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo – a leading immigration hard-liner in
Congress, which recently pushed through millions of dollars to
toughen enforcement – also is incensed.
“Is a policeman going to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take you in
right now because I’ve got to direct traffic?”‘ asked Tancredo, a
“(ICE agents) have a responsibility to enforce the law,” he said.
“… And they can’t use the old excuse about resources. They’ve
gotten a lot more. What are they using that for? What do they need
resources for if that person walked in? They don’t have to search
Now Meza and Ramos say they’re thinking about voluntarily
approaching ICE agents again.
“I feel more pressure, more fear,” Meza said.
She lives in an area where illegal immigrants struggle to get by
juggling jobs and looking out for one another to avoid police and
Meza said she’s always turning her head, checking when she leaves
her shared rental house. She drags Edgar out with her late at night
to a grocery store, thinking it’s the only safe time to get food.
For years, she has been working up the nerve to turn herself in,
praying for guidance at a church where parishioners urged her to
visit a lawyer.
Lost her job after 9/11
Edgar was born May 22, 1998, at an Aurora hospital, where doctors
warned that “he is very fragile.” In addition to Down syndrome,
he has a congenital heart problem that required three open-heart
surgeries to put in a prosthetic mitral valve and a pacemaker,
according to medical records.
“He requires close supervision. His pacemaker needs to be checked
monthly, and he needs to be monitored carefully due to the
anticoagulants,” said a letter from Dr. Robert Wolfe at the
University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. “Moving away from
this center is potentially life-threatening for Edgar.”
Another factor compelling Meza to beg for legal residency: She
hasn’t been able to work since 2001. After her stint with the
Postal Service, she settled into a job at Pour la France cafe at
Denver International Airport. But after the 9/11 attacks, airport
supervisors checked workers’ Social Security numbers. She was found
Now, she relies on friends to get by. Medicaid pays Edgar’s medical
“In Mexico, if you go to the hospital and don’t have money, they
won’t help you,” she said.
She has dreamed of returning one day to her home in southern
Mexico. But today, Edgar’s needs come first.
She helps him slide in the park after school and even plays soccer
with him, she said. His smile ignites her whole world.
“He must always be with me,” she said.