By Patty LaTaille
1990. Heidelberg, Germany. Schiller International University. College student – me – accepted from State University of New York, Cortland. Germany in a historic tumultuous transitional time. Took a sledgehammer to Berlin Wall – fell two months previous. Willkommen in Deutschland. Treated with kindness, curiosity, consideration and respect. My knowledge and practice of the language encouraged and enhanced. Gained 17 pounds in six months; beer, bread and chocolate – food tastes so much better over there. Life-threatening illness after trip to Greece. Saved within 24 hours of “expiration” by German physician and five-day stay in hospital with excellent care – $300. Returned to U.S. as an ambassador of all things German. “Ich liebe Deutschland!”
Fast forward to 2017: eight young recent graduates of Waldorf school in Stuttgart – excited to participate in the Rocky Mountains Language Adventure (RMLA). A vacation/language program. Eager 18-year-old Germans in Salida for one month. Ready to being welcomed into host family homes – presented with opportunities to practice English – and play in mountains of Colorado.
Looking forward to this:
“… participants yearly have had an unforgettable experience, fallen in love with Salida and were praised highly by all who got to know them for their respectful friendliness and great enthusiasm.” – RMLA Program Description.
Sixth year of successful program. Youth here in USA on Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) visas – all good. Until now. July 28, 2017. Land at Denver International Airport (DIA).
New administration, new interpretation? Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Issue with visas? Wrong visa! No volunteer work on tourist visa. Not on the ICE watch. Intent to defraud?
Students rounded up from baggage claim – so close, yet so far … All eight detained. Yet no “Holding Facility” at DIA.
Salida residents Susan and Tim Masterson – Program Director and supportive spouse – in the Arrivals reception area – anxious, bewildered … waiting …
Four ICE agents surround nice couple with best of intentions – interrogation time.
No intended malice, fraud or trafficking. Yet unintentional actions cause much grief.
Result: “They’re going back.”
In disbelief: THIS is America? Politicos contacted: Congressman Doug Lamborn, Senators Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner, Governor John Hickenlooper gave their best efforts. German Embassy in Washington D.C. involved – to no avail.
Who does ICE answer to?
[InContenAdTwo] Students become prisoners. No interpreter, no attorney. Only handcuffs, leg irons, personal possessions confiscated, shuffling in shackles to Prison van – transported 16 miles to Aurora Correctional Facility. Inducted into prison – separated – subjected to a full-body searches – dressed in prison garb and locked in cells.
Young people alone and scared in a strange, brutal new world. Struggling with their fear, and a language that is not their own. Needing reassurance and connection.
Next day all eight deported. No Willkommen a USA. A night in prison and long flight back to Frankfurt. Program leaders stay at DIA until youth on plane. No personal connection allowed. Drive 3 1/2 hours home to Salida in empty vans – solo – alone with thoughts and emotions of anger, concern, helplessness, disbelief.
Families – at home – overseas and in U.S. concerned – no word. Contacted:
“Where are our kids/kinder?” Worry.
Trauma all around. Community sadness and outrage. Host families: “We are so sorry that you are not here with us!” Downplay media – the youth and parents have suffered enough. Shameful treatment of guests to our country. “A black eye on America”, writes editor of Salida’s Mountain Mail. What is going to make this right?
Follow the hearts to Salida – a community that cares. A meeting with restorative approaches: How do we repair the harm?
Out of love and grief arises the phoenix of ingenuity: GoFundMe campaign, cards and letters to youth and families, outreach to government officials, FaceBook posts and Twitter Tweets. Concerned citizens volunteer with energy powered by outrage – and the desire to find proverbial silver lining in clouds of disconnection and disillusionment.
“Above all, the program helped to establish strong personal and cultural ties between our allied countries. Our German visitors returned to their country as ambassadors of an open-minded, friendly and caring United States of America.” RMLA Program Description
To our German friends: Wir bitte Sie um Verzeihung. (We ask for your forgiveness.)
This story is bigger than the experience of the youth. Bigger than Salida. Bigger than Colorado. Bigger than the United States. What has America become?
A GoFundMe site has been set up to help reimburse these students for their airfare. Visit www.gofundme.com/german-students-deported.
Patty LaTaille keeps on keeping on with her mission to alleviate suffering through social justice. Sometimes it feels like swimming upstream in the Arkansas River – through the snow. And ICE.