New migrants face fear and loneliness. But on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, Fort Morgan has a storied support network

Immigration American Small Towns
Gaby Meza Rodriguez, 7, left, prays with other children during a Sunday school session while her parents attend a church service, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Fort Morgan, Colo. Meza Rodriguez’s parents, who have four U.S.-born children including her, are in limbo as they are in the process seeking legal immigration status. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

By Jesse Bedayn AP/Report for America

Magdalena Simon's only consolation after immigration officers handcuffed and led her husband away was the contents of his wallet, a few bills.

The hopes that had pushed her to trudge thousands of miles from Guatemala in 2019, her son’s small frame clutched to her chest, ceded to despair and loneliness in Fort Morgan, a ranching outpost on Colorado’s eastern plains, where some locals stared at her too long and the wind howls so fiercely it once blew the doors half off a hotel.

The pregnant Simon tried to mask the despair every morning when her toddlers asked, “Where’s papa?”

To millions of migrants who have crossed the U.S. southern border in the past few years, stepping off greyhound buses in places across America, such feelings can be constant companions. What Simon would find in this unassuming city of a little more than 11,400, however, was a community that pulled her in, connecting her with legal council, charities, schools and soon friends, a unique support network built by generations of immigrants.

In this small town, migrants are building quiet lives, far from big cities like New York, Chicago and Denver that have struggled to house asylum-seekers and from the halls of Congress where their futures are bandied about in negotiations.

Immigration American Small Towns
Amy Bautista Lopez, 7, wearing a traditional dress from the Mexico state of Nuevo Leon, performs during a Posada celebration, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Fort Morgan, Colo. Organizers put on the Posada, a Latin-American tradition based on the religious events of Joseph and Mary searching for shelter before the birth of Jesus, as a way for migrants in Colorado to feel a sense of unity during the holiday season. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The Fort Morgan migrant community has become a boon for newcomers, nearly all of whom arrive from perilous journeys to new challenges: pursuing asylum cases; finding a paycheck big enough for food, an attorney and a roof; placing their kids in school; and navigating a language barrier, all while facing the threat of deportation.

The United Nations used the community, 80 miles (129 kilometers) northeast of Denver, as a case study for rural refugee integration after a thousand Somalis arrived to work in meatpacking plants in the late 2000s. In 2022, grassroots groups sent migrants living in mobile homes to Congress to tell their stories.

In the last year, hundreds more migrants have arrived in Morgan County. More than 30 languages are spoken in Fort Morgan’s only high school, which has translators for the most common languages and a phone service for others. On Sundays, Spanish is heard from the pulpits of six churches.

The demographic shift in recent decades has forced the community to adapt: Local organizations hold monthly support groups, train students and adults about their rights, teach others how to drive, ensure kids are in school and direct people to immigration attorneys.

Simon herself now tells her story to those stepping off buses. The community can't wave away the burdens, but they can make them lighter.

Immigration American Small Towns
A candle burns as people gather for a Posada celebration, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Fort Morgan, Colo. Organizers put on the Posada, a Latin-American tradition based on the religious events of Joseph and Mary searching for shelter before the birth of Jesus, as a way for migrants in Colorado to feel a sense of unity during the holiday season. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

“It’s not like home where you have your parents and all of your family around you,” Simon tells those she meets in grocery stores and school pickup lines. “If you run into a problem, you need to find your own family.”

The work has grown amid negotiations in Washington, D.C., on a deal that could toughen asylum protocols and bolster border enforcement.

On a recent Sunday, advocacy groups organized a posada, a Mexican celebration of the biblical Joseph and Mary seeking shelter for Mary to give birth and being turned away until they were given the stable.

Before marching down the street singing a song adaption in which migrants are seeking shelter instead of Joseph and Mary, participants signed letters urging Colorado's two Democratic senators and Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck to reject stiffer asylum rules.

A century ago, it was sugar beet production that brought German and Russian migration to the area. Now, many migrants work inside dairy plants.

When area businesses were raided several times in the 2000s, friends disappeared overnight, seats sat empty in schools and gaps opened on factory lines.

"That really changed the the understanding of how deeply embedded migrants are in community," said Jennifer Piper of American Friends Service Committee, which organized the posada celebration.

Immigration American Small Towns
Teenagers participating in a Quinceañera stand at the Rainbow Bridge while posing for photographers as vehicles cruise by on the outskirts of Fort Morgan, Colo., Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Guadalupe “Lupe” Lopez Chavez, who arrived in the U.S. alone in 1998 from Guatemala at age 16, spends long hours working with migrants, including helping connect Simon to a lawyer after her husband was detained.

One recent Saturday, Lopez Chavez sat in the low-ceilinged office of One Morgan County, a nearly 20-year-old migration nonprofit. In a folding chair, Maria Ramirez sifted through manila folders dated November 2023, when she'd arrived in the U.S.

Ramirez fled central Mexico, where cartel violence claimed her younger brother's life, and asked Lopez Chavez how she could get health care. Ramirez's 4-year-old daughter — who pranced behind her mother, blowing bubbles and popping the ones that landed in her brown curls — has a lung condition.

Ramirez said she would work anywhere to move from the living room they sleep in, with just a blanket on the floor as cushioning.

In the offices resembling a hostel's well-loved communal space, Lopez Chavez cautioned Ramirez to consult a lawyer before applying for health care. Sitting aside Ramirez were two settled migrants offering support and advice.

“A lot of stuff that you heard in Mexico (about the U.S.) was you couldn’t walk on the streets, you had to live in the shadows, you’d be targeted,” said Ramirez. “It’s beautiful to come into a community that’s united."

Immigration American Small Towns
Guadalupe Rodriguez Pino, right, holds the hand of her husband Gerardo Meza Vargas as they attend a Sunday church service, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023, in Fort Morgan, Colo. The couple, who have four U.S.-born children, are in the process of getting legal immigration status. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Lopez Chavez works with new migrants because she remembers shackles snapping around her ankles after she was stopped for a traffic violation in 2012 and turned over to the U.S. immigration authorities.

“I just wanted to leave there because I’d never been in a cage before,” Lopez Chavez said in an interview, her eyes filling with tears.

At her first court hearing, Lopez Chavez and her husband stood alone. At her second hearing, after Lopez Chavez was connected to the community, she was flanked by new friends. That wall of support allowed her to keep her chin up as she fought her immigration case before being granted residency last year.

Lopez Chavez now works to cultivate that strength across the community.

“I don’t want any more families to go through what we went through,” said Lopez Chavez, who also encourages others to tell their stories. "Those examples give people the idea: If they can manage their case and win, maybe I can too."

In Fort Morgan, train tracks divide a mobile home park, where many migrants live, and the city's older homes. Some older migrants see new arrivals as getting better treatment by the U.S. and feel that is unfair. The community can't solve every challenge, and hasn't laid the last brick on cultural bridges between the diverse communities.

Immigration American Small Towns
Amy Bautista Lopez, 7, left, daughter of a community organization leader, teaches the ABC's in English to a 4-year-old migrant that arrived in the U.S. within the last month, Friday, Dec. 15, 2023, in Fort Morgan, Colo. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

But at the posada event, crowded in the One Morgan County offices, the assurances of community itself showed through the eyes of partygoers as children in cultural regalia danced traditional Mexican dances.

Among those bouncing around the long room was 7-year-old Francisco Mateo Simon. He doesn't remember the journey to the U.S., but his mother, Magdalena, does.

She remembers how ill he became as she carried him the last miles to the border. Now he spits out armadillo facts between the nubs of incoming front teeth in their mobile home, then points to his favorite ornament on their white, plastic Christmas tree.

“That's our brand new tree,” said his mother, as her eldest daughter practiced English with a kids' book.

“It's new,” she repeated, “It's our first new tree because in the past we've only had trees from the thrift store.”

Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.