“Papeles!” the tall man with baggy eyes and a black Carhartt sweatshirt demanded through a small opening in the glass door.
Frightened, the young woman, who I’ll refer to as Diana, rushed back to her car. Shaking, she drove down the road several blocks with her young child, where she waited for me to arrive.
“I tried to explain our situation,” Diana said. “But he just kept screaming, ‘Papeles!’ ”
A few minutes later, I drove up Shepard Drive toward the local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, which is located on the corner of Shepard and Turner. An old “car wash” sign towers over the parking lot, providing evidence of the building’s once civilian past.
I assured Diana that everything would be alright. Although, to be honest, I didn’t know if it would. The same man who had startled her earlier cracked open the door. I explained myself, and asked if I could accompany them inside.
“No,” the man replied curtly.
“Will they have an interpreter?” I replied.
“Yes,” he said, but as I knew from other immigrants, interpretation is often done with Google translator.
“When will they be released?” I asked.
“I can’t say,” he responded.
As I waited outside, I reflected on Diana’s recent journey. Alongside her family, she fled Latin America in early May after receiving countless death threats. Members of a local guerilla group killed her husband after he refused to support the rebels’ cause with monthly payments. Now, they were coming after the entire family. So, they fled to the United States with the hope of being granted asylum.
Every year, over 1 million people migrate to the U.S., but only a fraction of these individuals are eligible for asylum. And even fewer receive it. In 2019, which is the most recent year with accurate data, only 46,500 people were granted asylum, down from nearly 150,000 per year in the mid-1990s. Callously, as the demand for asylum has increased, the U.S. government has consistently reduced the number of annual slots available. Under the Trump administration, the number of people granted asylum nearly bottomed out.
During the Trump years, the Durango ICE facility was a lively place. Agents roamed the county, hunting down undocumented migrants. Unmarked cars were so common in trailer parks that residents set up neighborhood watch groups via WhatsApp and installed security cameras. One agent would even post up undercover on Friday nights at El Rancho Tavern.
“He’d get drunk with us, and start asking questions that implicated people we knew,” one member of the immigrant community recently told me. “He’d even run his finger under his nose to try and bait people into selling him drugs. Can you believe that?”
ICE was created in 2002 under the Homeland Security Act. As a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s ostensible mission is to “protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety.” However, in practice, ICE has ushered in a historic level of government intrusion and has facilitated the abuse of individual rights and liberties.
Today, ICE continues to seed fear in our local community and they do so with absolutely no citizen oversight. Everyday immigrants like Diana are forced to attend meetings with ICE agents – where their very future in this country may be determined – alone. No other government agency in our community operates with such anonymity nor should they.
Democracy depends on the transparency of elections and the accountability of government officials. In the absence of these conditions, democracy withers away. In this sense, supporting the rights of local immigrants is about much more than individual lives, it’s about our collective future as a nation.
Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.