For Immigrant Kids in Denver, Trump's Election Is Their 9/11

In basic ways, the three Denver-area schools are different. One is public, one is charter, one is Catholic.

But demographically, they have a lot in common. Their students come from exceedingly diverse national, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and their families tend to be on the lower end of the economic scale, including plenty of immigrants — some documented, some not.

And on the morning after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, the elementary-age kids among them, in particular, were absolutely terrified.

Some arrived at school in tears. Others broke down in sobs at the simplest and most seemingly benign of questions, such as "Are you okay?" or "How are you feeling?"

For hours, teachers and administrators at the schools — including my wife, the principal at one of them, and my two daughters, who are in charge of second-grade classrooms at separate facilities in disparate parts of the city under the auspices of Teach for America — worked to comfort and reassure the children even as they struggled with the emotions their reactions had triggered within the staff as a whole. And no wonder, given the heartbreaking nature of the kids' fear and confusion.

Asked one child: "Do you think my mom will still be there when I get home?"

According to my wife, the only day she can compare to yesterday over the course of her lengthy educational career was 9/11.

Such responses won't come as a surprise to Jennifer Piper. An interfaith organizer for the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting for immigrant rights, Piper says the Trump factor resulted in the targeting of immigrants even before his election, and she's concerned that his elevation to the nation's highest office will only exacerbate the situation.

"I think the most important thing for people to be aware of is that during this election, we've seen a big rise in bullying and hate crimes," Piper says. "We're calling on people, no matter who they voted for, to be aware of that dynamic and step up and intervene when they see immigrants, people of color and Muslims being victimized. Some of the peers I've heard from are afraid for their children's physical safety, not knowing if people who voted for [Trump] endorse these kinds of attacks."

Such incidents are hardly unique to Denver.

"This is something we've been following closely during the election cycle, and the Southern Poverty Law Center and even international human rights organizations have drawn attention to this trend," Piper notes. "It's real, and it's something people in my community, the white community, need to be aware of and be sensitive to. At this time, we hope that people will really come together — and as a faith-based organization that believes peace and justice is for all of us, we call on people to reach out to each other and hold each other close regardless of who you voted for this week."

These anxieties flow from Trump's invective over the course of his run for the presidency. At various times, he's called for mass deportation of anyone in this country illegally — and while he's occasionally modified his public stance, suggesting that he'll focus on ousting immigrants who've committed crimes, there continues to be enormous uncertainty about the final shape his approach will take.

From Piper's perspective, though, the anticipated Trump crackdown sounds an awful lot like what's been taking place in the U.S. for decades.

"The immigrant community and their families, many of whom are citizens, and their allies have been facing exactly these kinds of policies for the last thirty years," she maintains. "The things that Donald Trump has talked about, while he's talked about them in an extreme way, are actually kind of business as usual. It's more the tone and the forcefulness of the rhetoric that bothers people and can cause real violence. But the immigrant community and organizations like mine understand that there have been more deportation under the current administration than under all the other presidents combined — which is why we've been organizing for effective policies over punitive ones."

Although Piper hardly exempts President Barack Obama from her criticism of the present immigration situation, she stresses that "it's also Congress. They spent $18 billion on the border patrol and immigration enforcement, which is more than all the other federal law enforcement agencies combined. In spite of the president's more humane rhetoric, the translation into actual policy has not been that strong, and we're seeing an increasing trend toward the for-profit detention of immigrants."

Indeed, private prison stock prices surged after Trump's win — and the industry was already in an expansive phase. The Monday before the election, Piper says, the American Friends Service Committee held a vigil at the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, "which just added 400 more beds to their contract. That's now almost 1,000 people that can be held there, and most of the people being detained were asking for asylum under the legal process — the system we already have. These are not policies responding to a temporary crisis, and we're almost alone in the world in detaining asylum-seekers. The United Nations came out with a scathing report about families seeking asylum in the U.S., and our record is no longer that great. The immigration communities have had some gains over the last few years; they have been able to get some administrative policies that allow discretion in certain cases. But in terms of passing laws to give people a path to citizenship, we haven't seen that since 1986."

As Piper sees it, "when our political leaders speak about immigration, they often do so in the simplest of terms. They call for all the things Trump has been calling for: militarizing our border, deporting people who don't meet certain requirements rather than creating a path to citizenship. And we as Americans are reluctant to recognize when our systems don't match up with our values — and we often ignore the stories and the facts about the people who've been impacted. Some folks I've spoken with have been fighting their deportation for years and are worried about their safety and the safety of the community."

Several AFSC events intended to draw attention to these challenges are scheduled over the next week or so. At 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 12, a prayer walk will get under way at 1310 Federal Boulevard; click for more information. At the same time on November 12, Colorado People's Action will be holding a community meeting about immigration-related matters at the La Alma Recreation Center, 1325 West 11th Avenue; click for details about the get-together, whose slogan reads, "The Election Is Over — The Revolution Begins." And at 11 a.m. next Wednesday, November 16, a rally is scheduled to take place at the State Capitol; click to learn more.

Among the inspirations for gatherings like these are the kids at the aforementioned Denver schools. Yesterday afternoon, I volunteered at one of them, on the extreme eastern edge of the metro area, and by the time I arrived, the resilience of the thirty or so second-graders in attendance was on display. After their traumatic morning, they were able to laugh and play again thanks in large part to a slew of activities intended to help them process Trump's election, including a peace circle and writing letters of love and gratitude to friends, family members and teachers. Yet the specter of the new president still loomed.

At one point, a Muslim girl looking exceedingly stylish in a colorful hijab sidled up to me and asked confidentially, "Do you like Donald Trump?" Then, before I could answer, she wondered, "What's wrong with him?"

Out of the mouths of babes.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts