The Driggs Senior Center was full for last week’s community forum on immigration, and while a national advocate headlined the event, it was the local speakers who packed the biggest emotional wallop.
During the panel, Monica Carrillo of the Family Safety Network and Mandi Wilkinson of MD Nursery told two very different stories that both reveal the challenges surrounding immigration today.
Daring to dream
Carrillo said she knew from day one that she had no legal status in the United States, when she was running across the U.S. border with her parents as a child.
She went to school in Teton Valley and realized when she graduated high school that she couldn’t pursue education any further.
“That’s when it really hit me and I realized I was undocumented,” she said. “Everything changed in 2012 when Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals passed. I applied for that and was accepted. At that point I had hope, I had opportunities, and I felt like I could go for something bigger. I could start giving back not only to my Hispanic community but to my Teton Valley community.”
With the ability to work legally, Carillo took a job at Family Safety Network to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault get out of their situations.
In order to be approved for DACA, applicants must have entered the country as a minor, earned a high school degree or GED, and maintained a clean record. Nearly 800,000 young people have signed up for DACA since its inception.
Now the status of DACA recipients, or Dreamers, has been thrown into uncertainty. DACA was repealed in September and the deadline for renewal has passed. If Congress doesn’t pass legislation protecting DACA recipients, they might be susceptible to deportation. This is a troubling possibility for people with children and stable jobs who in many cases haven’t set foot in their birth country since immigrating here.
“If DACA goes away I don’t know what will happen, I don’t know what I’ll do,” Carrillo said. Her dream is to one day to get a college degree.
Piles of paperwork
Wilkinson is in charge of procuring work visas so that MD Nursery is fully staffed during its busy summer season. Every year she applies for 40 to 50 H-2B (non-agricultural) visas for temporary unskilled workers.
MD needs these workers to lay irrigation and maintain irrigation and do landscaping jobs. They work for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for a little over $15 per hour.
“We can’t find American workers to do that job,” Wilkinson said. “When we put ads in the paper for these positions, we’ll have an American worker last two weeks.”
She estimated that half of MD’s visa workers want a green card. Several have been able to make that leap on their own, and MD is now working with four applicants to help with the financial burden of attaining a green card.
Wilkinson described a little bit of the process of applying for temporary visas. MD is required to provide piles of paperwork including evidence of need, financial statements, and the locations of job sites.
There were two years in which MD did not receive its visas.
“We had a horrible situation,” Wilkinson said, close to tears. “Our guys who normally come were coming over illegally. The stories they told me…”
The workers took at least a month to make the trip, illegally brought by coyotes, or human smugglers, packed into vehicles with other people who dreamed of working in the United States but had no legal path to do so.
She spoke with deep affection for the visa workers, some of whom have been traveling to Teton Valley every summer for 18 years.
“I love having these guys,” she said. “I got to know them all really well and I’d love for them to bring their families here.”
Rounding out the panel were Lori McCune of Immigrant Hope and Gabby Hermosillo of the Teton Valley Hispanic Resource Center. They shared their perspectives on counseling and caring for the immigrant population of the valley.
Heads of nonprofits, public officials, and faith leaders could be spotted in the crowded room. Attendees described the forum as revelatory, powerful, and emotional. During the Q&A session, several people asked how American citizens can help undocumented people, through local and national political action and through acts of outreach.
“I was blown away by how many people showed up,” said Teton County Commissioner Mark Ricks afterwards. “It was a great first step, but keeping the ball rolling will be a challenge.”
He noted that immigration reform is crucial particularly in an agricultural community. He said that most people in large production agriculture are using almost exclusively Hispanic help. At the Ricks farm, they employ through the H-2A (agricultural) visa system three or four full-time seasonal workers and during harvest and delivery they need up to 15 workers.
After the panel guests spoke, Pastor Karlin Bilcher pledged that the forum would not mark the end of the church’s action.
One idea he has percolating is a friendly game of kickball between the Church in the Tetons and the Good Shepard Catholic Church—a game he joked would “undo the Reformation.” He also floated the possibility of “Salsa and Salsa” dance nights.
“We’re going to try to make a commitment to each other to just show up,” Bilcher concluded. “We’re going to try to carve space out of our lives to take this on because we think it’s important.”