Three recent, but apparently unrelated, attacks in the Denver area on newly arrived political refugees from Bhutan have frightened a fragile community. “Before leaving the refugee camp, I was thinking: We have problems. . . . I’ll feel safe in the United States. Now my feeling has changed. I’m not safe in the United States,” said Yadav Rizal, 39, who was robbed of $250, beaten and dragged behind a liquor store in northeast Denver. The attacks aggravate a difficult situation for refugees. The government grants them only $450 a month for eight months to resettle, forcing most to live in rougher areas where police and caseworkers say street crime is more frequent. Those who find work in the anemic economy often ride buses late at night. The Nepali-speaking, Hindu refugees from Bhutan now number about 530 in the Denver area.
Immigration enforcement yields new revenue during tight times.
Faced with a budget crunch that forced him to lay off deputies, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa has tapped a new source of revenue: illegal immigrants. Maketa has started leasing space in his jail to house an average of 150 immigrants a night for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also sent 17 jail deputies for training in immigration procedures so they can initiate deportations without waiting for federal agents. ICE pays $62.40 a night for each detained immigrant, plus mileage for transport in sheriff’s vans. The arrangement pumped $3.6 million into El Paso County over the past year and now provides 10 percent of the jail’s budget. “I feel like we’re truly contributing to (solving) a national problem,” said Maketa, one of 67 law enforcement agency chiefs nationwide who have had deputies authorized to enforce federal immigration laws.
With its faltering economy, the U.S. is no longer the land of opportunity it once was for Mexican immigrants.
The tightening economy may be driving once-hopeful immigrants home. This report presents evidence of a gradual exodus: Workers line up at Mexico’s consulate for permits that let them haul U.S.-purchased possessions tax-free. Car dealers catering to immigrants say cash-only business is brisk as workers hunt for affordable pickups, 1998 or newer to comply with Mexico’s laws. Bank data show that the amount of money Mexican workers send home is falling. Mexico-bound buses at Denver’s bus deport are filling up more swiftly than usual. Interviews indicate growing numbers of immigrants uprooted by economic hard times are recalculating whether to go or stay. Violence in Mexico complicates decision-making. Any exodus would add to what recent surveys in both the U.S . and Mexico show to be sharply reduced migration into the United States. Colorado’s population of 5 million includes 243,000 Mexico-born residents — many of them with U.S.-born children — and another 37,000 immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America. Latinos, half of them immigrants, make up 14 percent of the nation’s workforce.
Edwin Lara’s circuitous final journey began in Denver’s Funeraria Latina, then went by air to his home country of El Salvador, and finally he was driven on a road past a volcanic lake — nearly a month after he died — to the village where he was born.
“He always wanted to go back,” his sister, Cecelia, said at a visitation. “It was his dream to save money and then be with his children in El Salvador.”
Journeys such as this are increasingly common as the families of immigrants in Colorado, and throughout the United States, arrange for deceased loved ones to be transported back home. It’s a reverse migration of sorts that requires a new body-shipping dimension in the multibillion-dollar business of caring for the dead.
Familiar sport comforts growing community of African immigrants
Angolan immigrant Zacarias Paulo perched at the edge of the booth at Le Baobab restaurant, eyes fixed on a big-screen Hitachi as he watched Angola’s Black Antelopes pound Egypt’s Pharaohs in African Cup of Nations soccer.
The Africans come from nations across the continent and, though fewer in number than their counterparts from Mexico, are multiplying rapidly and sinking roots. Census data obtained last week indicated about 16,585 African immigrants reside in the area, which is double the number in 2000.
Their latest oasis opened off a once-blighted bit of East Colfax Avenue is the crimson-walled Le Baobab restaurant in Aurora, run by Congolese refugees Clarisse and Sylvin Mberry.
Officials want to cut the long wait caused by a surge in immigrants’ applications.
Mushrooming numbers of immigrants in Denver and other cities are pushing to become U.S. citizens, and their deluge of applications is forcing the government to fix its overloaded processing system.
Undaunted by a $200 application- fee hike and encouraged by political activists, more than 1.4 million immigrants applied for citizenship last year, nearly double the number in 2006 and among the highest totals on record, federal officials said Friday. At least 10,892 in Denver sought citizenship — apparently a local record, the latest federal data show.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials who process applications estimated their turnaround time has nearly tripled in recent years to 16 to 18 months. Nearly 1 million applications are pending, almost twice the number pending a year ago, data show. The government has promised to recruit and hire 1,500 new adjudicators to handle the massive backlog — using money from the fee hike from $475 to $675 that kicked in last July. Officials acknowledged that, despite receiving 1.4 million applications last year, the number of new citizens approved decreased — by 6 percent to 659,237 compared with 702,663 in fiscal year 2006.
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
New filings in the citizenship battle of a blind Palestinian
computer whiz show that the FBI completed its background check a
year ago but that Homeland Security officials then failed to rule
as required under federal law.
The government also has admitted it failed to comply fully with a
federal judge’s order to turn over the FBI background check
U.S. District Judge Walker Miller on Thursday reordered the
government to provide full results of the FBI check on Colorado
resident Zuhair Mahd – to be sealed and delivered by the end of
Government lawyers say the FBI never reveals background-check
results whether they are positive or negative. Revealing results
“may interfere with ongoing law enforcement or national security
investigations or interests,” according to U.S. Attorney Troy
Eid’s latest filing.
Eid on Thursday said: “The government will comply with the court
Department of Homeland Security citizenship spokesman Chris Bentley
declined to comment on the delays.
The case has revealed irregularities in how the government carries
out security checks on citizenship applicants under a system
instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mahd is among tens of
thousands of applicants nationwide who have passed tests but have
been left in limbo.
After applying for citizenship in September 2004 and passing tests
three months later, Mahd waited and waited, told by citizenship
officials that the FBI hadn’t completed his background check. In
May 2006, he filed a lawsuit to force action and won this year when
Miller ordered the FBI to complete the check in 45 days.
Then, citizenship officials rejected Mahd’s application after he
refused to submit to an additional videotaped interview.
A computer expert who pioneered text-to-speech software, Mahd, 34,
is representing himself. He was born totally blind to Palestinian
refugees in Jordan and came to the United States as a teenager with
the help of U.S. officials. He has worked for IBM and on government
contracts, living in the country legally for 17 years.
Judge Miller has asked government lawyers why Mahd shouldn’t be
U.S. Attorney Eid has argued Miller doesn’t have jurisdiction.
Federal judges once handled citizenship cases, but this duty was
transferred in the 1990s to the Department of Justice in an effort
to unburden courts.
U.S. immigration law says, however, that if applications of
immigrants who pass citizenship tests aren’t handled in 120 days,
the applicants can go to federal court and ask judges to decide.
Mahd said he’s bewildered to learn the FBI check has been done for
a year. He has appealed the denial.
“For all I know, they think I’m a heinous criminal or a
mischievous person. I’d like to clear this,” he said.
Over the next three weeks, the government plans to bring more than
1,400 refugees from Iraq to Denver and other U.S. cities – opening
doors that have been closed since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
By next year, the number of Iraqi refugees may swell to 12,000,
according to officials at the U.S. Departments of State and
Between 1992 and 2002, the U.S. accepted an average of 2,800 Iraqi
refugees a year. Since then, the annual average has dropped to
The accelerated flow is in response to pressure to ease a worsening
humanitarian crisis, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper
“We want to take care of the people who have helped us, especially
those who might feel under threat,” Cooper said.
United Nations officials last week estimated one in seven Iraqis
have left their homes.
More than 2 million have made it to neighboring countries – the
largest Middle East displacement since the 1948 creation of
The first refugees set to arrive in Denver are Nazar Al Taei, his
wife and their three children. They are scheduled to fly from
Al Taei worked as a translator for the American military. His legs
were injured, leaving him with nerve problems, resettlement-agency
documents show. Fearing for their lives, the family fled to
Before the war in Iraq, Al Taei and his wife worked as
Others slated for resettlement in Denver include a woman with
breast cancer who hasn’t seen her husband since last year and
another who worked as an interpreter and secretary and is suffering
from serious depression and anxiety, the documents show.
An apartment off Colorado Boulevard has been furnished and stocked
for the Al Taei family. Local school officials await their
children, said Ferdi Mevlani, director of Ecumenical Refugee and
This Denver group is working on contract to guide about a dozen
Iraqi newcomers this month.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands more Iraqis clamor to get out,
according to U.N. and government officials.
“My family now, they are on the target,” said Omar Al Rahmani,
47, a Baghdad city councilman who translated for U.S. forces and
visited Denver twice on intergovernmental exchanges.
“My daughter’s school is 150 meters from my home. Even that is too
far,” Al Rahmani said in a telephone interview Friday.
“I don’t feel she’s safe, even though the school has four
guards,” Al Rahmani said. “I just want my family to be out in a
secure place. That’s all I want.”
For the U.S., accepting Iraqi refugees presents the major challenge
of screening out possible terrorists, said Paul Rosenzweig, deputy
assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security.
The Bush administration’s plan is to admit 10,000 to 12,000 Iraqis
a year, starting next year, Rosenzweig said.
“We’re doing enhanced background and biometric checks on people
coming out of Iraq to do the best we can to be sure those who are
admitted are deserving refugees, while at the same time screening
out those who might pose problems to us because of connections to
al- Qaeda in Iraq or other terrorist organizations,” he said.
By the end of this month, total Iraqi arrivals for 2007 should
reach 2,000, said Todd Pierce, spokesman for the State Department’s
In the first seven months of 2007, some 190 Iraqi refugees were
United Nations High Commission for Refugees officials are
negotiating with the U.S. to accept as many of the 2 million Iraqi
refugees as possible, U.N. spokeswoman Wendy Young said.
The commission asked U.S. officials to admit 10,110 U.N.- screened
Iraqis this year – nearly three times the 3,586 Iraqis referred to
all other countries.
The fleeing Iraqis all managed to escape to neighboring countries
such as Jordan, where authorities last week closed their borders
because they are swamped with refugees.
“We rely on the United States as a key partner in refugee
resettlement,” Young said.
Inside Iraq, an estimated 2.2 million more uprooted Iraqis face
dwindling options for escape. U.N. officials say 50,000 a month are
fleeing their homes.
Some in Congress still oppose accepting any Iraqi refugees.
“I don’t trust the (government) to vet them correctly,” said U.S.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.
Others, like U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., are pushing to help
more Iraqis out of a volatile situation.
“We’ve created it,” Perlmutter said. ” It’s a tragic situation.
And I don’t think we’ve come to grips with it.”
Perlmutter said he plans to introduce a bill that would admit up to
2,000 Iraqis who worked for U.S. diplomats and contractors in
“People who have assisted the United States should be welcome here
and be able to avoid persecution in Iraq, if that’s what they
choose,” he said.
Denver is seen as an ideal resettlement site because it has robust
agencies to help refugees from around the world, a healthy economy
and the capacity to treat torture victims, said Paul Stein,
coordinator of Colorado’s state refugee program and chairman of a
national advisory panel.
“By not making an effort to resettle more Iraqis, you’d definitely
feed into that notion of hypocrisy and double standards,” Stein
About 41,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. last year among an
estimated 1.8 million legal and illegal immigrants.
Refugees, who are deemed unable to return safely to their home
countries, receive government assistance for 90 days.
Some Colorado leaders advocate resettling many more from Iraq.
“We’re directly affected by what’s happening in Iraq and the rest
of the world. … I’d like to see what tangible we can do to help
fulfill our moral obligations,” said state Rep. Joe Rice, who
served as a civil-affairs soldier in Iraq and hears regularly from
Iraqis wanting out.
But Rice said he’s also deeply conflicted. Many of those fleeing
Iraq “are the very people who are needed to try to stabilize
things, to build a new society there,” he said.
“If all the good people leave, who’s left to build a new
Judge exasperated at new delays in immigrant’s citizenship quest
Zuhair Mahd, a blind Palestinian computer programmer, has been in the U.S. legally for 17 years and passed his citizenship test in 2004.
A federal judge bristled with what he called “sheer disbelief” at
the government’s failure to follow his order in the case of a blind
Palestinian immigrant stalled in his quest for citizenship.
U.S. District Judge Walker Miller ordered federal authorities to
produce proof of an FBI background check of Colorado-based computer
expert Zuhair Mahd within 10 days.
Then, Miller said, he’ll decide whether he will rule on Mahd’s
long-delayed citizenship application – rather than leave it to the
Department of Homeland Security.
“This man’s been waiting since 2004,” Miller said. “This man has
The federal court action Friday in Denver gave a glimpse into what
have become widespread problems in the government’s
background-check program for all citizenship applicants to guard
against terrorism, started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Last month, Miller ordered the government to prove why Mahd
“should not be immediately naturalized.” In March, he ordered the
FBI to complete Mahd’s background check within 45 days – after Mahd
filed a federal lawsuit.
U.S. Attorney Troy Eid notified Miller that the check was done,
with results forwarded to immigration officials, yet no
documentation had been given to the court.
On Friday before Judge Miller, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth
Weishaupl argued that the judge has no jurisdiction to handle this
“I have the jurisdiction to determine whether my order has been
followed,” Miller said.
“What you are saying is: ‘You have to have a name check.’ But then
there’s nothing to show whether it’s been done. … I am not
satisfied,” he said.
Eid later issued a written statement: “We are confident that the
FBI completed the name check within the time frame mandated by the
court, and we look forward to proving this fact to the judge.”
Federal judges rarely rule on citizenship applications. In the
early 1990s, that responsibility was transferred to immigration
officials overseen by the Department of Justice so that courts
wouldn’t be bogged down.
But now immigration cases increasingly end up back in federal
court. Judges nationwide face multiplying cases filed by
citizenship applicants who have passed tests – but still aren’t
approved. The FBI is struggling to process hundreds of thousands of
U.S. law says immigrants who pass citizenship tests must have their
cases handled in 120 days. Otherwise, applicants can go to court
and ask judges to decide.
Mahd, 33, who has legally been in the U.S. for 17 years, passed his
citizenship test in December 2004.
He was born blind to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, and came to
the United States as a teenager with the help of U.S. officials. A
computer programmer, he has worked for IBM and on government
contacts, pioneering Arabic text-to-speech software.
After Mahd won his case compelling the FBI and Homeland Security to
handle his application, immigration officials demanded that he
provide additional documents and submit to videotaped interviews.
Mahd at first refused, saying he feared a fishing expedition. He
asked agents to explain why the additional demands were legally
In June, he complied and presented four years of tax records,
travel documents, employment data back to 1998 and more. He still
refused to be interviewed. This month, his application was denied.
Mahd has appealed that denial within Homeland Security’s
On Friday, Judge Miller said he wanted to see certified background
check results, not merely a declaration that the FBI check has been
If the background check involves matters of national security,
Miller said, he will review the documents in his office.
Mahd, as a self-represented noncitizen, would not be able to attend
“I’m confident the judge would evaluate this properly,” he said
Assistant U.S. Attorney Weishaupl told Miller she needed to have
his request for background-check documentation in writing.
“You will note, of course, the irony of you wanting something in
writing,” Miller said, assuring her it would be done in the
tradition of open government.
“I have no hesitation to put my orders in writing for all to
see,” he said.