News of an immigration raid at Morgan County's Wildcat Dairy, where 89 percent of employees weren't authorized to work in the United States, caused fear among documented and undocumented residents alike, says immigrant-rights advocate Damaris Cooksey.
That's especially true of children wondering why their fathers are in jail, she adds.
Cooksey, a Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition volunteer based in Fort Morgan, was part of a Saturday forum intended to answer questions about the raid earlier in the week, and the event was so successful that another get-together was held yesterday. Approximately fifty people turned up at each session, she notes -- among them kids whose fathers were taken into custody.
"One of the CIRC people was watching the kids as the adults were in the meeting," Cooksey recalls, "and she had them make a poster. She asked them, 'What would you want to tell your dad right now? What do you want to say to people about what's happened?' And these six, eight, twelve-year-old kids wrote, 'I love you. I miss you. I wish I could see you. It's not fair.' It was very emotional.
"What a quandary for a parent," she goes on. "How do you explain, 'Your dad's not a criminal, but you're not supposed to work here without these documents -- even though there's nobody here who would do this job if he doesn't.' How do you make a child understand something like that?"
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The overall mood at the forums was somber, Cooksey allows. "These are people who don't know how they're going to pay their bills and maybe don't really understand the court system in this country, or the difference between criminal law and civil law. Entering our country undocumented isn't a criminal offense, it's a civil offense -- and trying to explain the difference to some of them is really hard. But we also had to get a handle on their immediate needs. We needed to organize to help people, whether they needed a ride to the store because they don't drive or get diapers and food for their kids." Donations can be dropped off at Nuevo Creation, a congregation based at the Life Fellowship Church in Fort Morgan.
Cooksey doesn't know the immigration status of all the attendees, but she says some of those present were born and raised in Fort Morgan. However, this fact didn't seem to reassure them.
"I'm not saying the sheriff in Morgan County is racially profiling," she stresses. "But there's a fear that racial profiling is going on. There are naturalized citizens and people born in the United States who've been stopped over the years and asked, 'Do you have papers?,' 'What country are you from?,' that kind of thing. And knowing that makes the fear escalate."
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Indeed, Cooksey says some people who came to the forums were afraid their IDs would be checked simply for attending. But law enforcement wasn't on hand at either event.
Nonetheless, Cooksey confirms that some people have left Fort Morgan and Morgan County since the raid, and a number of Wildcat Dairy employees who weren't arrested are afraid to go back. "Do the math," she says. "They said 53 people weren't eligible to work there, and twenty of them are either in jail or in hiding. That's 33 people who know they're not supposed to be working there, and in a county of 30,000 people, with a limited number of jobs for unskilled labor, that's a lot of people out of work."
For those who are staying thus far, Cooksey believes the forums had a positive effect. Afterward, "I think a lot of people felt much more positive," she maintains. "Or at least they had a sense that they're not alone -- that there are people who want to help."
More from our Immigration archive: "Jeanette Vizguerra deportation decision delayed, but supporters promise fight will go on."