CHEYENNE – In the early hours of Feb. 3, 2012, Erica Delgado lit her trailer at 3008 Terry Road, space 17, on fire while she and her 11-year-old daughter were inside.
Immigration justice activists Carol Pascal and Sandi Gaulke said the reason for the murder-suicide was just as tragic. Earlier that year, several individuals – including Delgado – who worked at Little America Hotel and Resort, were detained following an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on their respective homes. Three were put in federal custody with charges of misuse of a Social Security number.
“(Delgado) was terrified that she would be sent back to Mexico, where her abusive husband was,” Pascal said.
“That galvanized me not only because the entire thing was tragic, but because as a victim of domestic violence, she was eligible for a permanent residence visa.”
Gaulke also felt galvanized, which led her to attend a community meeting that Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne called in response to the event. That’s where she got to know Pascal.
Horrified with the knowledge that Delgado and her child’s life could have been spared if she’d known her rights, the pair and their fellow volunteers got to work.
“We got to know the moms (two of the three individuals in federal custody) and their children,” Gaulke said. “The moms were in a federal prison in Nebraska, and volunteers took children there to see them. … Going to court and seeing the two mothers completely shackled, feet and hands chained together, it was horrifying for moms just trying to raise children and make a living.”
Eventually, the women had to go to federal court in Denver, so the volunteers wrote letters of recommendation in support. They also raised money to help the families of these women with rent, food, mental health care, school issues and more. Gaulke called it a success.
“Those two moms we thought would end up back in Mexico are (now) back in this community, working and raising their children,” she said.
This group of volunteers was the precursor to social justice organizations Juntos and Immigration Justice Coalition of Laramie County. In addition to facilitating Know Your Rights workshops and providing Emergency Information Packets (to ensure safety during an ICE arrest), these groups help Cheyenne residents eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program fill out their paperwork.
On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration may not proceed with its plans to end DACA, which protects hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The majority opinion, however, made it clear that the Trump administration had the right to take a different approach, causing the decision to be bittersweet for some.
“If Trump decides to go back after it in a different form, it could be temporary, but for right now, we’ll help anyone who needs to renew DACA and help with the paperwork – and money – if necessary,” Gaulke said.
Pascal agreed, calling the ruling a “temporary relief,” because current DACA recipients are safe for now. But she also said this isn’t a long-term solution, and what’s really needed is a proper immigration reform act in Congress to ensure these young people will be able to stay in the U.S. for their whole lives.
Cruz Morales, 34, is one such individual in Cheyenne. She moved to Wyoming from New Mexico 11 years ago, and she was born in Mexico. About six years ago, she heard of the coalition’s work and reached out to Pascal for help obtaining DACA status. Her first attempt at applying had been unsuccessful after she paid a Utah lawyer around $5,000, only to be denied.
“He did not help me at all,” Morales said. “So the government decided not to give me the DACA status, but I didn’t stop there. … I kept pursuing having this, and it really, really helped me as a person and also helped my family. It’s a lot better to support your family when you have this status in the U.S.”
But it wasn’t easy. Morales had to prove she moved to the U.S. before she turned 16, and to find the proper paperwork, she had to travel back to her high school in New Mexico. The office gave her the document she needed, and it was dated just one day before she turned 16.
When she heard about the Supreme Court decision last month, she felt a similar relief as that day in New Mexico.
“You know that if they said no, right now I would be packing my stuff and leaving the life I know,” Morales said. “I’m from Mexico, but I’ve been here most of my life. I don’t know how to live there.”
Morales said she doesn’t feel like an immigrant because she grew up here, and she’s also made great sacrifices to stay here. In January, for example, her mother died, and she wasn’t able to travel back to Mexico to see her because that would forfeit her DACA status. Her husband hasn’t been able to say goodbye to many of his ailing relatives for the same reason.
Looking at her 13-year-old daughter reminds Morales why it’s all worth it.
“There’s a reason we left everything behind and tried to move forward,” she said. “It’s really hard for a lot of people to see their kids hungry or all these things going on in South America right now with crime … that’s the main reason why I don’t want to go back. I’m really afraid something might have happened to us there.”
Even though they and their fellow activists have helped several locals obtain DACA status, and were able to prevent the construction of ICE’s proposed immigration prison in Uinta County, Pascal and Gaulke both said there’s much more work that needs to be done on immigration reform.
“Wyoming is the only state without a refugee resettlement office – that’s an important fact,” Gaulke said. “The majority of Wyoming thinks that immigrant people should all go back to where they came from. … Here’s the thing, we have immigrant folks working all over our state in many industries, and they do a lot of the work that other Americans will not do. They didn’t come to steal jobs, they came to make a living, provide safety and get an education.”
Morales is one of those people. In her words, she works, pays her taxes and tries to do good in this country. Yet despite acting the same as all law-abiding Americans, she knows she’ll always be treated differently.
“Why are we not good enough to be here?” Morales said. “Me or the people who have DACA like me and have been here forever and this is our home, we grew up here, we have our families here. … I’d like to understand why it’s so bad for us to have status here in the U.S.”