PERRY: Immigrants fighting fear with fire to protect children, families in Aurora schools

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Immigration is becoming synonymous with fear in Aurora.

It’s not just Aurora. Illegal immigrants across the region and the country make it clear that almost the very day after President Donald Trump was elected, their tenuous world in the United States started becoming scarier.

A group of about 50 documented and very legal immigrants and their friends and families filled the Aurora Public Schools board room Tuesday night to talk about how fear and immigration — legal or otherwise — seem to go hand in hand in a country built on immigration.

“How can my friend’s dreams come true if they have an everyday fear of getting deported?” Nepalese immigrant and Aurora Central High School student Anjali Bhujel told board members. Like thousands of children and parents in Aurora, the new administration, and a newly enthused disdain for immigrants, clings to their every waking minute, everywhere they go. Children born here to be instant citizens fret constantly about becoming orphans after their parents are picked up by immigration police and either jailed or deported.

Aurora police have tried to counter that fear with public messages that they aren’t immigration officers. Cops and other experts say there’s real danger for the entire community if illegal immigrants are driven deeper into the shadows by fear.

That key message has been muddled recently by an attempt by some on the city council to pacify anti-illegal-immigrant factions and address perceived threats by the Trump Administration to punish so-called sanctuary cities.

The befuddlement is rolling into Aurora’s immigrant community, immigrant alliances say. It’s creating new angst, and it prompts people like Tuesday’s supporters of immigrants to plead for help from places like school districts.

“I know how it feels to live in fear,” Cynthia told board members. She grew up in Aurora schools, went to college at the University of Northern Colorado and became a teacher. She teaches here now, watching classrooms full of other children and parents suffer the same anxiety she did as a child. “I remember being distracted and wondering if my parents would be there when I got home.”

She joined the other immigrants, families of immigrants and friends of immigrants in asking APS school board members to pass a measure that prohibits the school district from asking information about immigration status, or divulging such information to anyone — especially immigration officials.

Schools must be a place of safety, Cynthia and others said. She would give only her first name because she’s afraid others near her could be arrested by immigration agents.

She said she was confronted by a student’s panicked mother in February because there was a rumor in the Latino community that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were going to set up immigration checkpoints near schools.

The panic the woman dealt with inspired Cynthia and others. In an effort coordinated by Rise Colorado — an Aurora-based activist and support group for immigration issues — increasing incidents like this made Cynthia realize that schools must be safe havens for all students and parents. She also realized the school district must have a plan to come to children’s aid when or if everyone’s worst fears are realized.

The Trump administration, too, has sent out confusing and conflicting messages. Sometimes officials say that children of illegal immigrants and young illegal immigrants themselves won’t be rounded up. Other announcements and actions conflict with that. It’s unclear what the administration wants to do, or even can do, in regards to illegal immigrant adults. So immigrants in Aurora suffer both from the fear of the known and the fear of the unknown.

Cynics point out that ousted immigrants are welcome to take their children with them as they leave the country.

They don’t get it. These parents are more than willing to leave their children behind, not because they don’t love them, but because they do. They come here for opportunity for their children and families. They’re petrified, however, not knowing how their children will be taken care of if they’re picked up by ICE or deported.

Retired Crawford Elementary School Principal Deborah Gerkin told the APS board she’s seen firsthand the panic this can cause and what it does to parents. She recalled the infamous Swift meat-packing plant raid in Greeley about 10 years ago. Hundreds of illegal immigrants were rounded up while their children were in school. The panic swiftly spread to Aurora, and her school.

She heard commotion outside her office and when she went to investigate, one woman dropped to her knees and “begged me to keep her children safe” if she were rounded up and sent to an ICE prison.

Immigrants from Nepal, Africa, Burma, Mexico, South America and numerous support and activist groups from the region pleaded Tuesday with school board members to adopt a measure similar to those in Denver and Boulder. The measure would ensure confidence about immigration status in the schools, and it would make plans for what schools would do if Trump makes good on previous threats, or implements new ones.

The plea was most poignant coming from immigrants who knew how lucky they were to legally escape their past troubles. They never judge nor revile those who came here outside of the law. That’s class.

School board member Dan Jorgensen became emotional in explaining how his work with the group on the resolution gave him a close and eye-opening view of life as an immigrant, saying he’s never met anyone act “more American” than the immigrants he’s encountered who now call Aurora home.

He urged the board to take action on May 16 when it will decide the issue.

“The message is just as important as the action.”

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