Steamboat community helps Nicaraguan family be granted asylum in record time
Editor’s note: Ben Perez’s name has been changed, as well as the names of his wife and two children, to protect his privacy. Quotes from Perez have been translated from Spanish.
Nicaragua is in a state of civil unrest the country has not seen in decades.
President Daniel Ortega has been inching closer toward an authoritarian dictatorship, beginning with a crackdown against government opponents in April 2018. According to human rights organizations, hundreds of protesters were killed, thousands injured and many more thrown in jail for their opposition during that initial insurrection.
Since then, the Nicaraguan government has intensified its efforts to quash opposition, meaning that standing against the president leads to imprisonment, bodily harm or death.
This was the position in which Ben Perez found himself late last year.
“I left my country in the year 2021 in the month of December due to political problems as a result of being an opponent of the Ortega-Murillo government,” Perez said. “My life and the lives of my wife and children were in danger. For that reason, I had to leave my house, my job, my family, my country, in order to protect myself.”
He and his family left their home and ventured to the border crossing into the U.S. at Reynosa, Mexico. There, Perez turned to the government and began the process of applying for asylum.
The right to asylum, or sanctuary for persecuted peoples by a sovereign nation, has been a hotly contested topic in the United States for several years. It is also a complex and bureaucratic process, particularly for immigrants who cannot afford legal representation or speak English.
But when Perez and his family arrived in Steamboat, they were able to find help from their community, with several parties collaborating to ensure this family would have support throughout the asylum process.
A retired DA’s passion project
After being a district attorney for 35 years and the chief deputy district attorney for Jefferson County, Steve Jensen decided to retire in Steamboat. Although Jensen had extensive experience with criminal law, he didn’t know much about immigration law.
But Jensen’s daughter, also a lawyer, studied abroad in Argentina during college and has worked in the field.
“When I retired here in Steamboat, what my daughter was doing got me kind of interested,” Jensen explained. “I said, ‘Well, maybe I can help some immigrants.’”
Jensen first connected with the Steamboat Christian Center to ask if there was a way to help immigrants in Steamboat through the church or other community organizations. He then met Erick Ocampo, who runs Spanish ministries and community programming through the center.
Jensen also began volunteering with Integrated Community, starting a free, weekly clinic for folks with legal questions about anything from adoptions to speeding tickets.
Nelly Navarro, executive director for Integrated Community, explained that these clinics can be enormously helpful for the families they serve.
“Sometimes you just have the one question” for a lawyer, Navarro said, but without Jensen, “they would need to pay the full price.”
Renzo Walton, immigration specialist for Integrated Community, explained legal resources specifically for immigration issues can be hard to find in Steamboat, which does not have any immigration lawyers.
“It could be very overwhelming for people not understanding how the process works,” he said.
Walton has been helping to provide immigration services as a Department of Justice accredited representative for Integrated Community since 2016. Walton is not a lawyer and said that Jensen’s expertise has proven critical.
“A big barrier that we see is being in this rural community,” Navarro added. “We don’t have an immigration court here.”
‘Hanging in the balance’
Perez met Ocampo early on in the year. Ocampo, also an immigrant from Nicaragua, wanted to help the family get settled in Steamboat and find support for their asylum case.
“I’m here to help other people,” Ocampo said. He is passionate about the unique challenges immigrants can face in Steamboat.
“Erick Ocampo was the connection,” Perez said, adding that after meeting Jensen, he became “a great friend” to Perez and Perez’s family.
“He decided to listen to us and take my asylum case,” Perez said.
Jensen explained that the church reached out to him about this family in January. He met with them and, with Ocampo as a translator, heard their story.
“These are actually wonderful, hard working people, people that are really going to contribute tremendously to the fabric of our society and whose only sin was to want freedom and democracy in their own country,” Jensen said.
Jensen thought that Perez’s circumstance would qualify him for the rigorous standard of asylum based on fear of persecution that U.S. law requires.
“The asylum process and the whole immigration process is complicated, and when you’re in Steamboat, one of the problems we have run into is there are no immigration attorneys,” Jensen said.
So, he decided to take on the case and self-studied immigration law. Then, through a grant won by Integrated Community, he was able to take a six-week course on the subject.
“They were scared to death because they thought that if this went badly for us, the judge could have ordered them to move back to Nicaragua where they were absolutely certain that they would be imprisoned at the very minimum, if not worse,” Jensen said. “That’s a scary thing to be hanging in the balance.”
Jensen worked extensively with Ocampo and Perez to document his story and build the case. Despite the language barrier, they were able to compile the necessary documentation.
After an initial hearing in March, the church paid for transportation to the immigration court in Denver on June 14. The judge ruled that Perez should be granted asylum.
“Thanks to God, Steve and his wife, the Christian Center church and this great nation that opened its doors to us,” Perez said. “On June 14, 2022, I went to court in Denver where we were victorious because they approved my political asylum.”
These cases take an average of three years, Jensen said, but for Perez and his family, it took just seven months.
He added that the family will be able to apply for permanent residency next year and now can begin their lives in Steamboat without fear of deportation.
Crucial community support
Jensen emphasized that the support of the Steamboat Christian Center and Integrated Community was crucial to the case’s success.
It was important to have “an organization in our community like Integrated Community that … is committed to providing services and helping immigrants,” Jensen said. “In the absence of that, it might have been impossible.”
“We are lucky to have some really good nonprofit organizations like Integrated Community and Steamboat Christian Center that care about people,” he added.
These community hubs are especially crucial, Ocampo explained, because moving to a new country with a different culture and language can be extremely difficult.
“It’s very emotional because there’s two kids and a family, and they’re struggling with connection,” Ocampo said. “Think about bringing your kids to a small, totally new place (with) a totally new language, education, everything.”
“I must say that it is not easy to leave your country and come to this great nation where there are many opportunities to work,” Perez explained. “It is hard because they do not speak our language, and it is difficult to be in an environment where you do not know how to communicate.”
Walton said that while Steamboat is a warm community, it can be a tough transition regardless.
“The community is very open and very welcoming,” he said. “Still, it’s hard. Being in rural Colorado is not always the most nice place for immigrants.”
Navarro explained that immigration to the county has been steadily increasing, with Integrated Community having completed over 500 immigration intakes just this year.
“A lot of our families come here because they want to give their kids a better future,” Navarro said. “I think the immigration program that we’re able to provide is very unique in our area.”
“It really is life changing and really opening paths for our clients to really thrive in this community,” she added.
Perez said that despite the difficulties of leaving his home and moving to a new place, he has appreciated the support he has found in Steamboat.
“The people of Steamboat Springs are very polite, very kind people and that has helped us to be able to establish a relationship in this nation, in this town, in this state,” Perez said.
Jensen is working on another asylum case for a family who recently moved to Steamboat. He said it has been a rewarding experience, and he has enjoyed becoming so close with the family throughout the past months.
“They were just so relieved,” Jensen said. “It was a great feeling for us too — not because we won, but because we helped some very deserving people achieve part of the American dream.”
To reach Katy Pickens, call 970-871-4208 or email her at kpickens@SteamboatPilot.com
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