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In Rural Colorado, Advocates Travel Far To Serve Undocumented Immigrants

Esther Honig
A woman we're referring to as "A" sits in her living room. Her identity is being protected because she is undocumented.

Inside a small mobile home in rural Colorado, dark brown curtains are pulled tightly across the windows, locking out light from outside.

A woman who we'll call "A" lives here with her husband and three young children. We're not using her real name to protect her identity, because "A" is originally from Guatemala and undocumented. Like many people in her position, she fears an encounter with immigration officials could force her and her family to return to the country they fled nearly two years ago.

According to The Pew Research Center, a majority of the estimated 10.7 million undocumented immigrants in America reside in cities. But small undocumented communities have also settled in rural areas where many have found work in agriculture. Small towns offer a lower cost of living and often an increased sense of security, but the immigrants living in them may also find themselves isolated from legal resources and unaware of their constitutional rights.

Over the summer, when President Donald Trump announced a week of mass immigration raids, a swirl of fear and misinformation about Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, spread quickly across the small town of Fort Morgan, Colorado.

Susana Guardado, director of One Morgan County, a community outreach center located in Fort Morgan, decided she would host a know-your-rights seminar. But on the night of the seminar, very few individuals showed up at the community center.

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
Susana Guardado stands outside One Morgan County's community center.

"It was very low attended to what I know the need was," said Guardado. "People felt that if they were showing up to our building, which is a public entity, that they were somehow outing their status."

A small town can't offer the same anonymity experienced by undocumented communities in big cities. In Fort Morgan, people feared that they would be recognized by coworkers or neighbors as they entered the One Morgan County community center, which is located on the town's main drag.

Guardado later heard people say that is was as if they were announcing to the world, "I hold this status, you're seeing my face, you know my name."

In the end, the mass deportations Trump promised did not happen. Only a few arrests actually took place according to reporting by NPR, but Guardado was still determined to continue the know-your-rights training. Rather than request individuals come to the community center, she decided she would travel to them and host the training in the privacy of their own home.

News of the trainings spread by word-of-mouth. Pretty soon Guardado was traveling to remote counties across the Eastern Plains, speaking to groups of 20 or more in backyards and livingrooms, often during her weekends and on her own dime.

At 26, Guardado spends much of her time helping new arrivals — mainly immigrants and refugees  — navigate local resources, like how to obtain a driver's license or enroll in English classes. Initially, when she took the position in 2017, Guardado said she didn't feel qualified; she had no formal training. She learned could pull from her personal experience of moving to the U.S. from Mexico at a young age.

For as long as she can remember, Guardado's been interpreting and wayfinding for her own family and said her role has a community navigator finally "clicked," when she began to ask herself, "what could my family have used when we first arrived?"

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Guardado and Lillia Vieyra, a local volunteer, traveled to the home of "A," the Guatemalan mother, for a know-your-rights training.

In the dimly lit living room, "A" and her children sit huddled together as Guardado launches into her presentation. This first part is what Guardado refers to as the "defense" strategy, i.e. don't carry false documents and never lie to a law enforcement officer or immigration agent.

But what should they do if immigration officials knock at "A's" door? This part of the training is referred to as the"offense" strategy. Guardado explains that ICE agents may work in plain clothes and drive unmarked cars. Then she repeats what is perhaps her most valuable advice multiple times: under no circumstances should the family open their door.

The Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, extends to anyone living in the U.S., regardless of citizenship status. Only agents with a warrant signed by a judge can force their way into a private residence.

Guardado explains that without that warrant, ICE agents will say almost anything to convince the family to let them inside and that this exchange may continue for as long as 30 minutes. No matter what, they have to stand their ground.

Susana Guardado
Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
Susana Guardado makes house calls to hold individual know-your-rights seminars. A family of undocumented immigrants sits to her left while she plays them a video on her laptop.

Guardado said the know-your-rights training is important because people tend to think of deportation in the context of mass raids. Like last August, when ICE agents arrived at several chicken plants in Mississippi and arrested hundreds of people suspected of working without authorization. In reality, ICE keeps a much lower profile by making individual arrests on a daily basis.

According to the agency, between January and March of this year (the most recently available data), ICE has arrested or removed 1,424 people from across Colorado.

In rural areas, mitigating the fear stoked by rumors of ICE activity can be especially challenging. Josh Stallings, with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, or CIRC, said misinformation ripples through every corner of a small town — employers fall behind in productivity and shops lose customers.

"We've had times when a rumor's spread and people haven't gone to work or gone to school," he said.

Through CIRC, Stallings helps run a statewide hotline called the Rapid Response Network. Anyone can call to report what they suspect to be ICE agents making arrests and a volunteer, referred to as a verifier, will arrive at the scene to attempt to confirm or deny it. The network then posts this activity in real time to a Facebook page, which updates thousands of followers.

In what can be a sea of rumors and sensationalized media reports, the Rapid Response Network has become a source of reliable information. Based on the calls they've received, Stallings said ICE agents tend to target specific locations in rural areas.

"There's been a number of times in some of our rural counties where ICE has shown up at the courthouse and arrested people. Either in the courthouse or right after they've left," he said.

Other reported locations include shopping centers, though none of these calls have been confirmed, and mobile home parks. Stallings said the network tends to break down when trying to serve more remote rural areas because sometimes the closest volunteer is over an hour away.

Back inside the trailer, Susan Guardado plays short videos on her laptop to help "A" and her children better conceptualize the information they've just learned. Actors play immigrants and immigration agents. The simple plots reinforce the same key messages: you do not have to open your door and you have the right to remain silent.

Guardado often worries if people will remember their training should these scripted scenarios become reality. Will "A" remember to ask for their identification or to see a warrant? How will she recognize these documents if she can't read or write?

Typically Guardado ends her training sessions with some roleplaying, as a way to test "A"'s memory. Today, she decides it's best to skip it — she doesn't want to frighten the children, who cling to their mother's side.

"A" said she's thankful the kids can be here for the training.

"So they can understand what's going on," she said.

When a frail screen door is all that potentially stands between her family and immigration officials, she said it's important that they can all be on the same page.

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