Fearing Ariz. Law, Illegal Immigrants Head To Colo.

Kate Hoffmeyer at a vigil outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility. i i

hide captionKate Hoffmeyer of Denver attends a vigil in Aurora, Colo., organized by the immigrant-rights group American Friends Service Committee outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility run by GEO Group. Immigrant-rights groups hold vigils at the site on the first Monday of each month to oppose the presence of the detention center. Monday's vigil also included a protest of Arizona's immigration law.

Jeff Brady/NPR
Kate Hoffmeyer at a vigil outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility.

Kate Hoffmeyer of Denver attends a vigil in Aurora, Colo., organized by the immigrant-rights group American Friends Service Committee outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility run by GEO Group. Immigrant-rights groups hold vigils at the site on the first Monday of each month to oppose the presence of the detention center. Monday's vigil also included a protest of Arizona's immigration law.

Jeff Brady/NPR

While the most controversial elements of Arizona's immigration law have been placed on hold, some illegal immigrants in the state are deciding it's time to leave. In nearby Colorado, the American Friends Service Committee says more than a dozen families have arrived in just the past few weeks.

Arizona's law is intended to discourage illegal immigrants from living in the state. By that measure, the legislation may be succeeding even before it's fully implemented.

In a small apartment in a sketchy neighborhood just outside Denver, Elia, who doesn't want her last name published for fear of being deported, says she left Phoenix about two weeks ago.

"It was shown on television that if we were walking or if we were on the bus, the police could stop us because of the color of our skin — because we're Hispanic," she says through a Spanish-language interpreter.

Leaving Arizona

That's Elia's perception, but it's not true. The Arizona law specifically prohibits racial profiling. It requires police to check immigration status when someone is stopped for another offense, but that's one part of the law that a judge has blocked for now.

Still, Elia says she was scared. She'd been working at the same restaurant in Phoenix for six years, but without legal paperwork, her boss said she couldn't stay. She panicked and fled.

Elia gave away most of her possessions because she didn't want to draw attention from police on the highway.

"If we were going to have a lot of luggage in our car, it was going to look like we were escaping from Arizona," she says.

She brought her 18-year-old son, who has already found work in Denver, a 16-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old boy.

Elia begins to cry as she recounts what she put the youngest through. She was afraid to stop during the 19-hour drive to Denver, even for bathroom breaks, so she put a disposable diaper on him.

To make up for that she wants to buy him a toy, but she's a single mother without work, and there's no money for extras.

A few days back, she ran into another family at the laundry. They also recently fled Arizona, and they have a 6-month-old baby. Elia invited them to stay with her. Now nine people are crammed into the one-bedroom apartment with almost no furniture.

Help From Groups

Elia got the apartment with help from social service groups like the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.

Jennifer Piper, who works on immigration issues for the group, says it's amazing to think immigrants are fleeing Arizona for Colorado. Just a few years ago, Colorado lawmakers passed a series of immigration laws — some of them similar to Arizona's.

"Part of what's surprising in 2010 is to see how quickly we've gone from Colorado's laws being the toughest in the nation, to being laws that another state is competing to outdo," Piper says.

Immigration has been emerging as an issue in the midterm elections. In Colorado, one of the most vocal immigration critics in the country — former Congressman Tom Tancredo — is now running for governor. He says he doesn't understand why illegal immigrants are fleeing Arizona out of fear.

"The fear of what?" Tancredo asks. "The only thing that can happen is that they can be identified as being here illegally and perhaps, at worst, actually be deported because that's the law."

Tancredo says someone like Elia should go back to her home country and apply to move here legally. But that could take years, and Elia says she needs money now to support her family.

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