GREELEY, Colo. (AP) - Ernesto Garcia counted himself lucky after he was swept up in a 2006 immigration raid on a northern Colorado meatpacking plant: Unlike hundreds of co-workers here illegally, he was allowed to stay in the U.S.
Two years later, he's jobless and barely getting by while he waits for his immigration case to be resolved.
The 34-year-old Guatemalan is among hundreds of people across the country stuck in limbo while their cases inch their way through immigration courts. A favorable ruling would get them a green card. But in the meantime - and the meantime can be years - they're barred from working.
Julien Ross, director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, calls it a "sadistic" way to get immigrants to give up and go home.
"This is another example of why the raids don't work," Ross said. "It's almost salt on the wound to have them wait for years for their cases to be resolved. And the government knows they can't work."
Immigration cases do not have the same "speedy trial" requirements as criminal cases. Denver's four immigration judges each have up to 2,000 cases at a time, so delays are inevitable, said Christina Fiflis, an attorney who has represented some of the workers detained in the federal raid on the Swift & Co. plant in Greeley on Dec. 12, 2006.
Some can apply for work permits, but often there's an "extraordinary delay" in getting them, she said.
Unable to work, many rely on friends, family and charity.
"In many cases, the families will exhaust all options to see if they can remain in the country, especially families who have been here for a long time," said Rosa Maria Castaneda, a researcher with the Urban Institute, a Washington-based group that tracks the impact of workplace raids.
Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency doesn't know how many people arrested in raids are still in the United States waiting for immigration court hearings.
"Although this is their right, there are limits on what they can and cannot do in the meantime. There is no provision in law to give work authorization to those who have been found working illegally in the United States," Rusnok said.
Elaine Komis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review - the immigration court system - said it's common for immigration cases to take years when people appeal a decision by the immigration judge.
Castaneda's group doesn't have an exact count of pending cases from recent work-site raids.
But she said they include some of the 261 people detained in the Swift raid in Greeley and another 261 in a same-day raid in Grand Island, Neb. They also include 361 workers swept up in a March 2007 raid on the Michael Bianco Inc. textile factory in New Bedford, Mass. As of December, 201 of those workers remained in New Bedford.
"It's difficult because you can't get work. But we're putting our faith in God, that he will help us," said Brenda Miranda, whose husband, Jose Mendoza, was detained in Greeley, 60 miles north of Denver. "It's worth it because our children will have better opportunities," she said in Spanish.
Miranda, 26, said her husband, who like her is from northern Mexico, has been working sporadically - and illegally - in construction. She said he's left with about $120 a week after making child support payments.
Mendoza, 29, was arrested again late last year when Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck launched an investigation into more than 1,300 people he says filed tax returns with false or stolen identities. Mendoza's next immigration hearing is in December.
Garcia also has worked illegally since the raid; his last job, in a carrot and onion field, ended in November. It paid him $300 a week, part of which he used to pay an immigration attorney.
The raid in which Garcia was picked up was part of an ICE operation that also targeted Swift plants in Grand Island; Cactus, Texas; Hyrum, Utah; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Worthington, Minn. ICE said a total of 1,297 workers were arrested that day. In the end, Garcia and others - including some whose next court date isn't until December, or three years after the raid - may be deported.
A church and a community group have stepped in to help the immigrants in Greeley.
"I feel like they're here, they're hungry, and we have a moral imperative to help them," said Ann Ratcliffe, 65, a Family of Christ Presbyterian Church member. She calls the families picked up in the raid "vecinos" - neighbors.
The church and its affiliates have pitched in more than $30,000 over the last two years to help about two dozen families while they wait for their cases to be resolved.
"Here they are and they're stuck," said the Rev. Richard Craft, pastor of the Greeley church that helps administer the funds through the community group Al Frente de la Lucha (At the Front of the Battle).
Garcia, who came to Colorado illegally 13 years ago, hopes that the amount of time he has spent here will lead to legal status.
"If it's horrible for me here, in my country it would be worse," said Garcia. "Better to fight here and see what happens."
Ricardo Romero, a leader of Al Frente de la Lucha, said the families still in Greeley include about 13 from Guatemala, six from Mexico and two from El Salvador.
"Once the (church) money runs out, I don't know what we'll do," Romero said. "But if we make it to the court dates, and somebody gets citizenship, then I guess it was all worth it."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)