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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Families of undocumented dairy workers advised; CIRC says immigration system broken

By DAN BARKER
The Fort Morgan Times

Posted: 06/06/2011

Although the Obama administration and the Office of Homeland Defense have said they will not make raids to catch immigrants unless they have committed serious crimes, such a raid did happened in Morgan County when 11 Hispanic dairy workers were arrested last week.

That was part of what was said during a couple of community meetings in Fort Morgan by representatives of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition as they came to talk to the wives and children of the men about what to expect from the court system and how to survive without their husbands' paychecks.

Those who showed up were predominantly women and children, and emotions were evident. Children wanted to talk about what was happening with their daddies and some women could barely restrain tears.

"(Children) cry," said one wife of a prisoner. "They don't understand. They just ask for their dad."

"There's a lot of fear right now," said Julie Gonzales, CIRC director of organization, adding that some families may be afraid to leave their homes.

In addition to a need for food and financial assistance, the women said their children could use some counseling from pastors or counselors.

People often do not understand how hard it is on the children when their parents are taken away, and they are not aware that the children have rights as American citizens, Gonzales said.

The timing of the raid was particularly hard on the families, because it was near the beginning of the month when rent and utility bills are due, she said.

CIRC is trying to set up a fund people can donate aid to, but that has not happened yet, Gonzales said.

In the meantime, those who want to help can take donations to the New Creation Church at 929 E. Burlington Ave., Gonzales said, also noting that other agencies like Caring Ministries might help out.

The families urgently need diapers, milk and infant formula, and can use other food. Donors can also contact Gonzales at 970-891-2712 or Damaris at 970-381-7123.

Eleven men were taken into custody following a grand jury indictment based on an inspection at the Wildcat Dairy in Morgan County. They were part of a group of 20 who were indicted.

Authorities claim a review of work eligibility forms found that the men were ineligible to work in the U.S.

Those who were arrested are charged with using forged social security and alien registration cards to gain employment.

They were advised of the charges and their rights Thursday morning in Morgan County District Court. All 11 face felony charges, including criminal impersonation, criminal impersonation to gain a benefit, possession of a forged social security card and possession of a forged alien registration card.

District Court Judge Douglas Vannoy advised the men that if convicted, these charges could carry penalties of as much as three years in prison, one year of mandatory parole and fines of up to $100,000. He set bail at $50,000 due to fears by the 13th Judicial District Attorney's Office that the men could flee the area.

Deputy District Attorney Rebecca Wiard told the judge that plea offers were ready to present to each of the defendants, but the District Attorney's Office is also ready for trial in each case.

CIRC Policy Director Hans Meyer, who is an attorney, cautioned families to look at any plea offers carefully before accepting them, because it could have consequences that last a lifetime.

This is a different situation than many earlier raids, because government officials are claiming they are criminals, not just undocumented workers, he said.

Immigration advocates are hearing contrasting messages from federal agencies, said CIRC Executive Director Julien Ross.

The Office of Homeland Security and the Obama administration have said they will not be pursuing everyday workers or raiding their homes if they have not committed serious crimes unrelated to immigration, he said.

These men face severe charges and exaggerated bond, Ross said.

Bonds of $50,000 seem to compare their actions to murder or kidnapping, which is unjust, Meyer said.

Families and friends know the arrested men are not criminals, that they are committed to supporting their families and are not flight risks, Ross said.

In conducting individual interviews to help counsel families, Meyer said he did not think any of the men had committed any serious crimes or intended any harm to anyone.

The intensity of the prosecution of ordinary workers makes people wonder if this is a political move by local government officials, Ross said.

The U.S. has a broken immigration system and if legislators and administrators do not fix it, this kind of situation will continue to recur, he said.

Ross wondered if it really made sense to spend all of this manpower and money on a few undocumented, minimum wage workers, especially in this time of budget cuts.

"Is this the crime we want to go after," Ross asked. "How much will it cost to hold them indefinitely?"

Even legal immigrants are afraid when this kind of prosecution happens, said one woman who works in agriculture.

She counseled the families to talk to attorneys without fear and tell their stories.

"We know that you are suffering," the woman said. "You have the right to be here."

Families which have been in the U.S. for 10 years and more, and those who have children born in the U.S. - which makes the children U.S. citizens - may be able to argue in immigration court that they should remain in the U.S., Meyer said.

There are also a number of other ways they might be able to stay in the country, but this case is more complex than just the possibility of deportation, he said.

What happens with immigrant status depends on what happens with the criminal charges, Meyer said.

Even if they are known as good workers and family men, a conviction can make them ineligible for immigration, he said.

Those who are pursuing this prosecution are trying to criminalize what people do to make a living in the U.S., Meyer said.

Some of the charges may be called felonies, but are not very serious, but every case must be examined individually, he said.

"The crime here is to be an immigrant," Meyer said.

These charges and any convictions or plea agreements can make it harder to win a case in immigration court and take away the defense that they are solid residents, Meyer said.

Ross said it could be difficult for any of the men to meet bail or to have the bail reset to a lower level.

The men could argue that Morgan County is their home, that this is their community and that they have no incentive to leave, but there are no guarantees that this would make a difference, Meyer said.

It is hard to tell if the 13th Judicial District Attorney's Office is willing to lower bail under any circumstances, he told the families.

How bail bond works largely depends on political and emotional issues and the atmosphere in the community, Meyer noted. In some cities these men would not receive such a high bond.

Sometimes there are negotiations during the legal process, but those who are charged must be careful about accepting any agreements, because such agreements could come back to haunt them, he said.

All of this is difficult for the men who have never been in jail, and they can easily become anxious and desperate to get out and support their families, but that might be a mistake, Meyer said.

They need to analyze any offers with the help of their public defenders or other attorneys before making decisions - particularly to understand if an agreement affects their immigration status, he said.

In some cases, it might be best to accept a plea agreement, but in other cases the defendant might lose any immigration opportunity, Meyer warned.

He also warned that men who get out of jail would not technically be allowed to work to support their families, although sometimes they can apply for work permits.

The defendants need to have confidence in their attorneys' advice, Meyer explained. Unfortunately, public defenders often have little experience with immigration law, he said.

These men face two trials on the criminal charges and immigration issues, and the immigration case will depend on how the criminal case is resolved, Meyer said.

Ross said the families' personal stories are important to CIRC members and others.

"We want to honor and respect what you're going through," Gonzales said.

CIRV will continue working to resolve this and other immigration issues, as well as to prevent this kind of situation, Ross said.

Ross explained that employers and workers are in a "Catch-22," and the current system sometimes destroys workers, families and communities.

That is a bad dynamic, because the economy often could not function without immigrant workers, he said.

Document experts have noted that when someone borrows a social security number it can cause problems, and not always intentionally. For example, if the person borrowing the number does not pay enough taxes, the person the number really belongs to could end up owing more taxes.

Some have urged the legislature and officials to increase the number of work permits for non-citizens to avoid the problems of people trying to use unauthorized documents, saying there is a need for those workers.

Gonzales said CIRC and others may try to appeal to the Obama administration and local officials.

She encouraged the families to tell their stories to U.S. legislators in order to touch their hearts.

It is important to let people know about this injustice, and it is urgent to do so now while it is fresh in the public's minds, Gonzales said.

People need to know how the families are suffering, she said.

http://www.fortmorgantimes.com/ci_18215649