Residents gather to express opposition to president's policies

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FARMINGTON — Josey Foo once was an undocumented immigrant from Malaysia. Now, she's a lawyer. And there are two things she wants you to know about the time she was in America illegally.

"I never broke the law," she said. "And I paid my taxes the entire time."

Foo was one of several people who passed around a megaphone today and related the story of how they or their ancestors came to this country during a welcoming rally for immigrants that was held on the grounds of the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

The rally was held in response to some of the immigration-related policies of President Trump, most notably his promise to build a wall along the U.S. Mexico border and his executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Foo, who came to America when she was 18, earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and supported herself in New York City as a waitress and a carpenter while finishing her education. She told the crowd her status was undocumented from 1986 to 1989.

"If I had been kicked out, I wouldn't have been able to continue (going to school)," she said.

Later, Foo said, when she was going through the process of becoming a citizen, she was very straightforward with U.S. immigration officials about the time she spent as an undocumented resident.

"When I did my citizenship interview, I came clean about everything," she said.

Foo came to Farmington in 2000 and spent eight years working for the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. In January, she became the executive director of the New Beginnings program, which provides transitional housing for domestic violence victims and family members. She said she enjoys living here and gets along well with all her neighbors, Republicans and Democrats alike.

"I love Farmington," she said. "I love all the people."

When he filled out the city paperwork requesting permission to hold the rally, organizer Steve Clark estimated the event would draw a crowd of 30 to 50 people. But the event far exceeded those numbers. Estimates of the crowd size by Clark and Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe put the count at between 85 and 90 people, many of whom held homemade signs they waved at passing motorists on East Main Street.

"When we first came out, there were just a couple of people," Clark said, grinning and looking around at a crowd that quickly had swelled to more than 50 people just a few minutes after the event began at 11 a.m. "I'm really pleased that people were willing to drag themselves out of their homes and support us."

Despite the turnout today, many of Trump's policies are strongly supported in San Juan County, which he carried by a large margin of voters in November's election. Reached by phone after the rally, San Juan County Republican Party Chairman Drew Degner said he's in favor of the president's promise to build a border wall.

"It's something that's going to have to be done, and it's one of the reasons he got elected," Degner said.

The chairman maintained that the seven Muslim-majority countries included in the Trump's executive order already had been named nations of concern in a 2015 bill signed by then-President Obama. He explained that the order simply prioritizes the security of Americans.

"I think we need to be worried about the safety of our own country," he said. "I think we need to worry about our homeland before we worry about allowing immigrants in."

While members of Congress have struggled without success for many years to reach a compromise on the issue of what to do with undocumented immigrants who have been in America for a prolonged period, Degner believes the duty of immigration officials is clear.

"We've had the laws, we just haven't been enforcing them," he said. "For the most part, we just need to enforce the laws on the books. … I think that's the direction Trump is going in."

But many of those in attendance at today's rally expressed opposition to deportations of undocumented immigrants and to Trump's executive order.

Waterflow resident Ann McCarthy explained that she grew up in northern New Jersey as the child of two World War II veterans who fought for freedom. She described the president's policies as nonsense.

"I think it's the wrong thing to do," she said. "I grew seeing the Statue of Liberty in the harbor."

McCarthy brought along a photo album of her dog Jeeves, a rescue animal she adopted recently from a shelter in Afghanistan, as an example of how her own life has been enriched by an "immigrant."

Farmington resident Becca Lipnick said the rally demonstrates that even in a solidly red area such as San Juan County, there are many people who disagree with the president's stance on immigrants.

"This would drastically change our nation if we start rejecting (immigrants) instead of accepting," she said.

Kirtland resident Tisa Russell, a Sheep Springs native, brought her three sons — 21-year-old Herschel, 13-year-old Derrick and 11-year-old Tarick — to the rally. She said as the political landscape in America has shifted in recent months, she has felt increasingly compelled to become active.

Russell said she has a number of Latino friends, and she said many of them are worried about their future in America.

"I see the fear of deportation," she said. "I've known their families for years working in the restaurant business, and they're good people."

Russell noted that people of Native heritage are the original inhabitants of this land, and she finds it hypocritical that so many Americans of European descent now want to deny recent immigrants the right to come or remain here.

Clark guessed that most of those who attended the rally had never taken part in a demonstration before, and he said Trump's election has energized many people opposed to the positions he espouses.

He said in his role as a history teacher at Hermosa Middle School in Farmington, he has pointed out to his students that America has endured numerous waves of immigration from such places as Germany, Ireland, China and Eastern Europe.

"Each group was met with pushback," he said.

Even so, the country has benefited from the presence of people who came here from elsewhere.

"They became our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers and grandfathers and grandmothers," he said. "We just want to continue that tradition."

Clark said the rally was not designed to be confrontational, adding that nobody at the event wants to see drug cartel members or terrorists living here. He and his wife Laura Marshall have organized a group called Step by Step Indivisible San Juan that is organizing a series of meetings in April and May to promote civil discourse between people of opposing political viewpoints. Marshall said the first session will take place at 6:30 p.m. April 13 at San Juan College.

"It's a chance to talk about our differences and try to understand where people are coming from," she said. "It helps to bridge the divide."

Given the volatility of the immigration issue, Farmington police maintained a presence at the rally as a precautionary measure. But Hebbe said aside from a few comments shouted at the crowd by some drivers on East Main Street, there had been no incidents to speak of.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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