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Posted: January 14, 2010

“Just Like Us”

An excerpt from the book by Denver's First Lady, Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe

JUST_LIKE_US,_Thorpe,_cover_imagex.jpg

Editor's note: To complement a column about immigration in the January print edition, ColoradoBiz arranged with Helen Thorpe and her publisher, Scribner, to publish a chapter of her book , "Just Like Us," online. A few weeks later, Thorpe's husband, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, became a candidate for governor.

"Just Like Us" is the story of four Mexican girls - including two who do not have legal documentation - as they make the transition from high school to college and the obstacles they face.

"The Concept of Citizenship," chapter 12 from "Just Like Us," by Helen Thorpe

Copyright 2009 by Helen Thorpe

Halfway through the fall quarter, Clara and Yadira spent hours papering the dorms and common areas with homemade signs announcing a Noche Caliente on Friday, October 21. By then, midterm exams would be over and students would be eager for a party. The girls had decided to organize a series of events that would make the campus a more engaging place for Latinos, and they wanted their first big event to have cross-cultural appeal.

Student dance instructors were going to provide lessons in both salsa and hip-hop. By nine p.m., black, white, and Latino students were milling outside the ballroom, a cavernous space meagerly decorated with a few potted plants, strips of crepe paper, and randomly placed balloons. At the door, Yadira collected money; she wore a skimpy top with spaghetti straps that showed off her figure. Meanwhile, Clara had zipped up her black cardigan to her collarbone, exposing as little as possible of the black cocktail dress shewore underneath. Matías and Jaime strolled up together-after they began living together, they had become lovers-and an African American student named Tyrone arrived looking suave in a glow-in-the-darknecklace and a black baseball cap.

The hip-hop instructor's sneakers squeaked on the floor as she did the lock, the pop, the jam-steps that involved a lot of heel-toe action. Most of the Latinas had worn high heels, which made it hard for them to jam but did not prevent them from doing the salsa. At first Clara would not dance, but eventually she relented and enjoyed four salsas in a row with a straitlaced mexicano from West High. Marisela arrived late and wound up dancing on top of a table with Jaime.

The university was a big place, however, and not everyone shared their worldview, as the girls were forcibly reminded the following afternoon, when another crowd congregated in a different part of the campus to attend a forum about illegal immigration. The list of people slated to speak included both Tom Tancredo and former governor Dick Lamm, and the primary organizers of the event were Fred Elbel and Mike McGarry, the codirectors of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform.

Elbel had also become involved with a new group, Defend Colorado Now, which was pushing for a statewide ballot initiative similar to Arizona's Proposition 200. Defend Colorado Now wanted to pass a constitutional amendment to deny nonemergency public services to illegal immigrants in the state of Colorado. The measure was scheduled to come before voters in one year's time, during the same election cycle in which Colorado would pick a new governor, guaranteeing that one of the topics of debate was going to be the wedge issue of immigration.

A throng of protesters intercepted attendees on their way into Boettcher Hall, where the forum was being held. One carried a sign that read: "Tancredo-that's Italian, right?" Among the protesters, I recognized several members of the Mountain View Friends Meeting, the local Quaker Meeting to which I belong. In recent years, the subject of immigration had divided our congregation: Most of Mountain View had adopted a pro-immigrant stance, following the lead of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker political organization that was defending the rights of immigrants nationally, but a minority of Mountain View instead considered illegal immigrants a threat to low-skilled workers who had been born here.

One person I knew from Mountain View Friends Meeting was a longtime friend of Mike McGarry's, and on several occasions, this woman had told me that I ought to get to know McGarry. While Quakers are supposed to try to see "that of God" in everyone, so far I had not been able to look past McGarry's interruption of my husband's State of the City address, though I did recognize this as a failing. At the same time, I disagreed with some of the local AFSC staffers, too. Once I had listened to a presentation in which an AFSC staffer mentioned there might be links between people who opposed illegal immigration and white supremacist organizations. I did not believe that racism was a primary motivation for most opponents of illegal immigration-the racism that existed seemed like a by-product of an underlying economic conflict-and such accusations struck me as counterproductive.

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The crowd streaming into Boettcher Hall seemed invigorated by the baking-soda-and-vinegar experience of walking past pro-immigrant activists and then encountering a table full of CAIR literature. An older woman whose hair had been teased into a perfect 1950s bouffant remarked in a bright tone, "I don't know, I guess they are protesting us! They've got too much time on their hands!"

Close to 400 people, most of whom appeared to be Anglo retirees, filled the auditorium. Incongruously, the periodic table of elements hung over the stage, as though we had assembled for a chemistry lecture. Mike McGarry strode to the microphone wearing a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed glasses, his familiar thatch of white hair making him instantly recognizable.

"Free speech is guaranteed by the United States Constitution," he told the crowd. "No one is barred from coming here, but essentially what we planned was for this to be a program of like-minded people. We have [police] lieutenants here who will enforce our right to free speech if the need comes up."

Then McGarry announced he was giving Gabriela Flora of the American Friends Service Committee six minutes to share her thoughts. I had not anticipated that McGarry would extend this courtesy to one of his detractors, and wondered for the first time if he might be a sensible human being.

"My organization's Christian roots are what bring me to the podium today, to talk about our concerns about how the discussion on immigration is framed here," Flora told the crowd. "We have a moral imperative to welcome the stranger. As Leviticus 19:33-34 says, ‘And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'"

Flora asserted that immigrants contributed more to government budgets in taxes than they took out in services. Then she segued into a lengthy critique of how much CEOs were paid, in the hopes of realigning this working-class audience with the immigrants they viewed as their enemies. I was studying the crowd when I suddenly spotted Marisela, sitting with Zahra on the far side of the room, about one-third of the way back from the stage. Clara and Yadira had found seats behind Marisela and Zahra.

"We are all in the same boat, but we are blaming the immigrants," Flora told the crowd.

"Illegal immigrants!" yelled a heckler.

"Get it right!" hollered someone else. "Six minutes is UP!"

Flora concluded with a passage from Matthew: "‘What you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.'"

Protesters who had found seats in the back of the auditorium gave her a standing ovation, while CAIR supporters craned around to see who was clapping. Polarization bisected the room, and unfortunately the Roosevelt High girls had chosen seats in the wrong half of the auditorium. The four girls looked alarmed at their predicament, as they were huddled together whispering. Next, a man named Frosty Wooldridge took the podium. A former U.S. Army medical service officer, he now wrote pungent books about riding his bicycle (one was called Salty Tights). Wooldridge displayed a chart depicting the growth of the United States population in two colors: A green hump delineated the shape of U.S. population growth thanks to the procreation of those
people who were living here in the year 1970, and then above that zoomed a red triangle that reached higher as time went on-the rate of growth due to immigration.

Wooldridge pointed to a moment in the future when the total population of the United States would grow to half a billion people, and said that by then our living conditions would resemble those in Bangladesh. "Do we want that here?" he demanded intensely. "Can we afford to give our children that kind of crisis?"

Wooldridge hoisted up a new chart, a series of handwritten figures scrawled on poster board. It said:

$564.1 million ed. costs
$400 billion lost IRS tax
$2,700 per illegal in CO annually
$300 billion lost wages = US citizen
$7.4 trillion fed. debt
$10.2 billion cost CA = Illegals

Where did he get his numbers? And what did the federal debt have to do with illegal immigration? Wooldridge never explained. He called for Governor Owens to declare a state of emergency in Colorado, and the front of the room erupted in a huge cheer. When the back of the room started booing, a red-faced woman in front shook her fist at the infiltrators. Elbel ambled over to the mike.

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"Folks, let's keep this civil," he said amiably. "Well, I guess it's been pretty civil so far."

"Except for all the hate being spewed!" yelled a protester.

"Hate?" repeated the man sitting next to me, in a puzzled tone. He turned around to stare at the protesters. Evelyn Elstrom, a retired schoolteacher, took the microphone to argue that illegality led to character flaws. "How can a youngster cope when the only path to survival is to be devious?" she asked. "When the family has to be devious to enter the United States? How does a youngster handle a problem in school in a straightforward manner when he or she knows his family is here illegally-that his dad has a fake Social Security card?"

I looked over at the girls. Yadira was leaning forward, with her chin cupped in her hand, but it was hard to see Marisela because she had slouched down so far in her seat. Later, Jim Spence, a former special agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, suggested stationing law enforcement officials at every type of public transportation in the country, so as to deny illegal immigrants any possibility of traveling, then taking away all job opportunities, medical services, and schooling.

"Fascist!" yelled a heckler. "Cruel!" shouted another.

A young man dressed entirely in black walked over to a police officer and murmured something inaudible. "So you want me to start throwing them out?" the cop replied.

"We have asked the safety police to tell anybody who is booing or making odd comments not to do that, or they will be asked to leave," Elbel announced. "And the more noise there is, the less time we have for the speakers, so please hold your applause. "Now I'd like to introduce Congressman Tom Tancredo."

Tancredo strolled onto the stage wearing a mock turtleneck and a sports coat. The front half of the room jumped to their feet, whistling and hooting. "Don't listen to a thing he said about applause!" encouraged the congressman. "This is a tough issue. It is a controversial issue. It touches a lot of emotions, as evidenced by the folks here on both sides, frankly, but that is as it should be. It is something that we're going to have to deal with as a nation. We're going to have to talk about it, regardless of how controversial it may be."

The police officers paced back and forth below the protesters, staring at them from behind mirrored sunglasses. None of the protesters said a word. Tancredo described arriving in Congress to discover that nobody wanted to touch the issue of immigration. He resorted to going onto the House floor late at night to court the C-Span camera crew. "It would be eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock at night and I'd be thinking, ‘Is anybody out there?'" he said. "And I would get back to my office and all these faxes are coming in. I'm thinking, ‘Somebody did watch! Somebody is out there, somebody who cares!'"

The faxes sustained him during his lean years, until he started drawing crowds. "Now I'm traveling all over the country, and everywhere I go-it doesn't matter which state anymore. I mean, Iowa-Iowa, if you can imagine! It was like six o'clock in the afternoon and it was raining and there were five hundred people in parkas!"

Tancredo spoke in support of pending legislation that would make felons of every illegal alien in the country. He also advocated amending the U.S. Constitution to prevent American citizenship from being given to children who were born to illegal parents, saying: "No more anchor baby!" The front half of the room roared, while the back maintained a stony silence. "We're actually starting to talk about the concept of citizenship, what it really means," he said in conclusion. "It's very difficult, it takes a lot of time, but it is enormously important. It really rivals in my mind the whole discussion of immigration. It is the discussion of who we are as a nation. What does citizenship really mean? Do we have all the rights that have been granted in the Constitution simply because
we happen to reside here?"

"No!" shouted a supporter.

"No, absolutely not," agreed the congressman. "We are citizens of a unique place on this planet that all of us should be proud of, and anybody that comes here from anyplace else should be willing to say, ‘I am willing to cut from the old, and I am willing to accept this idea of America.' Is that really too much to ask? Is it chauvinistic, xenophobic? Somebody who comes to this country and says, ‘I want to be here, but I have absolutely no desire to attach myself to this idea called America-I come here for something else entirely, and as a matter of fact, I want to stay separate. I want to stay linguistically separate, and even politically separate.' Well, I suggest to you that you are in the wrong place."

The room erupted into sound. A series of other politicians followed Tancredo onto the stage, including a candidate for governor and two state representatives who had recently posed for press photos with gun-toting Minutemen at the border. But the emotional high point of the forum came when Mike McGarry introduced Carol Vizzi, the mother of a hit-and-run victim. Vizzi got out her reading glasses and a prepared statement.

"Of course, my life turned on a dime on July 1, 2004 when my own innocent child, Justin Goodman, was tragically killed," she read. "Justin was only thirty-two years old when he was run down and killed by an illegal alien. He was knocked from his motorcycle in Thornton, Colorado. That motorcycle turned end over end, and when my child lay bleeding on a curb, dying, that illegal sped away." Six months later, the Thornton police arrested Roberto Martínez Ruíz-a thirty-three-year-old illegal immigrant who had used at least six different aliases and had previously been arrested for driving under the influence, failure to appear in court, probation violation, careless driving, careless driving resulting in death, driving with a revoked license and another hit and run. He was eventually convicted of leaving the scene of an accident and tampering with evidence, among other things, in connection with Goodman's dying. It was the scope of Martínez Ruíz's record that most incensed Carol Vizzi.

"Despite his long rap sheet, his long histories of run-ins with the law, no official ever contacted the INS to have him deported, nor did he suffer any consequences as a result of his crimes," she said. Vizzi wanted to know how Mayor John Hickenlooper, Governor Bill Owens and President George Bush would feel if it were their child who had been killed. She also wanted to know who was going to take care of her son's eleven-year-old daughter. "Who will feed her? Who will grant her a higher education? Who will take care of her health concerns?"

"Right on!" cried out an audience member. "That's right!"

John Vizzi followed his sister to the microphone to announce he wanted to boycott businesses that hired illegal aliens. "One of them-the first one-will be the company that hired Roberto Martínez Ruíz!"

"Yes! Yeah!" called out the crowd.

"And the mayor of Denver who hired the killer of Donnie Young!"

"Put them on the list!" yelled someone.

I glanced over and saw that the girls were gone. I decided it was time for me to leave, too. I had seen enough, and given the turn things were taking, it seemed prudent to go before I was recognized. Later, I told my husband about John Vizzi's plans to boycott the Wynkoop brewpub. "Somebody should tell him that the Wynkoop is probably the only restaurant in Colorado that doesn’t hire illegal aliens,” my husband replied dryly, referring to the new hiring procedures adopted by his business partners. But truth had played a subservient role at the forum, where emotions had trumped fact. For me, the most surprising aspect was who had spoken: Lamm never showed up, but the event had featured one congressman, two state legislators, and a candidate for governor. It was by their presence that I recognized the movement against illegal immigration had gone mainstream.

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Helen Thorpe is a freelance journalist whose magazine stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, Texas Monthly, Westword, and 5280. Thorpe has worked for The New York Observer; The New Yorker, where she wrote "Talk of the Town" stories; and Texas Monthly. Born in London, she grew up in Medford, New Jersey, and now lives in Denver, Colorado. Thorpe is married to John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver, and they have one son.

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