In Light Of Election Rhetoric, Aurora Seeks To Calm Fears And Build Community

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Photo: Aurora Together Community Meeting 1 | speaker - MVerlee
Aurora City Councilmember Françoise Bergan of Ward VI addresses the community gathering at Aurora Central High School, Thursday, Dec. 1. 2016.

Around one in five people living in the city of Aurora were born overseas. Some have been there for decades. Others, like Somali refugee Farduuz Ahmed, are more recent arrivals. She resettled in the United States only last year, but already feels a connection.

“This is my home and this is my country,” Ahmed said. “So, I don’t want to hear people tell me, 'you are going back or you are this or you are this.' I don’t want to hear that.”

Yet, that’s the message many refugees like Ahmed are getting from the presidential election. They’re worried their place in their new country isn’t as a secure as they thought it was. A community forum, arranged by Aurora government agencies and nonprofits, was held Thursday night to try and address some of the concerns of the city’s other refugees and immigrants.

"The last thing on a refugee's mind is to harm the country that gives them hope," says woman. "Please do not be afraid of refugees."

President-elect Trump’s campaign rhetoric has led to a lot of confusion in the refugee community. Ahmed, who works as a community navigator for the Colorado African Organization, said she hears the questions all the time: “what is going on? what are people talking about, like, deporting people or taking them back where they came from?“

The idea for the forum started with the collection of nonprofits that serve Aurora’s newcomers, including the Aurora Mental Health Center and the Asian Pacific Development Center. Staff at the organizations have been talking to each other since the election about the uncertainty and fear they’re hearing from the people they work with.

Reaching out to the public schools, the police department, the DA’s office, and to local elected officials, they put together a panel meant to reassure immigrants and refugees that the city — to borrow a phrase from Denver’s mayor — has their back, now and going forward. Aurora’s police chief, Nick Metz, sought to echo that sentiment when it came to recent news that a Black family was targeted twice with racist graffiti.

Metz urged those gathered to report any incident they even think might count as a hate crime.

“It’s important that you call 911,” Aurora’s police chief said. “Don’t doubt yourself, do not worry that, ‘oh, I’m not sure I want to bother the officers, they’re very busy.’ No. Our officers are committed to making sure that these crimes are investigated fully.”

According to The Denver Post, Aurora Police have investigated six bias-related crimes in the last month, a higher rate than usual.

Photo: Aurora Together Community Meeting 2 | Crowd Triptych - MVerlee
The community gathering, held at Aurora Central High School, was organized by government and community groups to provide information and to respond to community questions on immigrant and refugee policy, policing, civil rights and safety.

Addressing concerns over deportations and enforcement, District Attorney George Brauchler reiterated that when it comes to immigration status, the police don’t care.

“I know there’s a great concern that if people contact law enforcement or the government, that somehow that’s going to put them on some kind of a come-get-me immigration database,” Brauchler said. “That’s just not true, that’s just not how it works.”

A pointed question from the audience asked about what Colorado’s elected officials are prepared to do if President Trump retaliates against police departments that refuse to cooperate with deportation policies, possibly by withholding federal funding, as Trump promised to do on the campaign trail.

It was a question that took awhile to get an answer, as no local official readily jumped up to address it. Eventually two newly-elected state representatives stood and voiced support for the police department, but they didn’t say anything concrete.

While the forum was planned to address the concerns of immigrants and refugees, at least one person in the audience was more concerned about them than for them.

Louis Marien asked what kind of vetting refugees go through before they’re cleared to resettle in the United States. It’s an issue he feels has added urgency, given the recent attack by a Somali refugee at the Ohio State University campus.

After the meeting Marien said didn’t really see the need for the gathering.

“No one said anything when Obama said what he said about people clinging to their guns and Bibles. We didn’t have a meeting like this,” Marien said. “No one stood up for us. And now we’re getting this, because Trump got elected? Is it a double-standard?”

Ironically, Marien had one of the few questions that the panel could really answer. There is a very clear process in place to investigate refugees before they’re resettled. Harder to address were all of the audience’s questions about what may or may not happen under the incoming Trump administration, scenarios that are all highly-speculative at this point.

That uncertainty is frustrating for some. One woman, Brenda — she declined to give her last name due to her undocumented status — came to the U.S from Mexico in 1989 and now has four American children. Since the election, she said she's worried about the future in the United States. Brenda came to the community meeting hoping to learn how her situation could change under the incoming president… but she left without answers.

“I mean, they try to reassure us, but at the same time, they can’t really tell us anything because they don’t know either.”