From left, Kevine Kampire smiles at Kanny Jacobi as he carries a bag of carrots, both of the Groundwork Denver program, on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, during a food pantry distribution at the Village Exchange Center in Aurora. The Village Exchange Center is a nonprofit organization that supports immigrants and refugees. (Rachel Woolf for Colorado Newsline)
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“I discovered my purpose in life,” Rios said.
Rios, through an apprenticeship he began in March 2020 at Village Farms at Stanley, fell in love with growing food. The social enterprise is operated by Village Exchange Center, an Aurora nonprofit that gets the produce to people in need through weekly food pantry distributions.
For Rios, who fled Venezuela in 2017, growing fruits and vegetables at the farm was much more than just a new hobby. Improving food access for underserved communities represented an opportunity to come full circle. In Venezuela, he explained, you had two options: Work to make enough money to buy a little food, when there was nowhere to purchase it, or give up your job so you would have time to stand in line for food all day.
“The only food access that you had … was the food provided by the government,” Rios said. “So imagine how powerful it is to flip the page where I had the opportunity to come here to be involved with farming and to grow food for the community.”
Rios spoke to Newsline during a community celebration at Village Exchange Center in late June 2021. He didn’t give his full name as a precaution in case it would endanger his ongoing immigration case.
Things were looking up at the time. President Joe Biden’s administration had recently announced that temporary protected status, or TPS, for Venezuelans would be extended through September 2022 — welcome news for Rios, who would be eligible for protection from deportation under TPS. Along with his TPS case, Rios explained, he had a parallel, pending asylum case. Asylum status would provide protection and a path to lawful permanent residency, which could eventually lead to citizenship.
At the event, a sense of cautious relief filled the air as people talked and laughed over burgers. The spread of COVID-19 had been slowing across Colorado as vaccination rates continued to climb. Most businesses had reopened to full capacity.
But the pandemic left indelible scars on many Coloradans, and undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families often bore the brunt of its economic and health-related effects. Forced to remain in the shadows, they were shut out from many of the same relief measures — such as unemployment insurance and stimulus checks — that their neighbors, friends and colleagues could enjoy, despite the fact that many lacked access to health care in the midst of a global health crisis.
“Even prior to the pandemic itself, the fear that immigrants felt was so palpable that even if their U.S. citizen kids qualified for certain programs or benefits or what-have-you, their immigrant parents were declining to enroll them,” state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said in an interview. “The pandemic, however, then added all of these extra fears on top of a community that was terrified to reach out and ask anybody for help.”
Legislators, policymakers and social workers in Colorado did their best over the last year and a half to break down barriers to trust. Meanwhile, immigrants and their community allies stood up to support one another and fill needed gaps.
A year and a half after Rios first began growing food at Village Farms, he’s been granted the title of assistant farm manager and is focused on finding new ways to meet the needs of Aurora’s diverse population. For example, this year the farm grew a type of white eggplant that’s a staple in West African cuisine so Aurora’s Makola African Market could stock its shelves with local produce, instead of shipping it from Ghana, Rios said.
“For us that’s a huge accomplishment,” Rios said in November, “because it shows the farm can bring sustainability and also can bring food access, not only for people in the community, but also to immigrant businesses.”
It hasn’t always been easy. In mid-August, a fire consumed the garden shed on the Village Farms property, destroying what Rios estimated as close to $70,000 worth of supplies. Police never charged anyone in connection with the incident, but Rios suspects arson, especially since the farm had dealt with episodes of vandalism leading up to the fire.
Pieces of the farm’s irrigation system were broken in the weeks before the fire, Rios recalled. “Also, we saw smashed watermelons across the farm — which is really bad, because, you know, in order to grow watermelon, you have to wait four or five months, more or less.”
Then, that fateful day in August, the farm manager called Rios to tell him the shed had caught fire. Rios had just returned home after a day of work on the farm. At first, Rios thought the call was just a prank.
“Close to an hour later, he sent me a picture of the shed that was turned to ashes,” Rios said, “and my heart just was broken.”
Village Farms was able to replace the supplies with the help of community members, and Rios believes the incident raised the farm’s profile in a helpful way. But the fire shook the feeling of security that had been carefully cultivated among the rows of bell peppers, carrots and beets.
“That was a violation of our space and also of our integrity, because after the fire we didn’t feel safe around that place,” Rios said. “Fortunately, no one was hurt.”
Leaning on community
Advocates who work with undocumented and mixed-status families had to get creative from the start of the pandemic when devising ways to deliver aid to those who needed it. Organizations could take advantage of some of the federal coronavirus relief money Congress sent to Colorado through the CARES Act, passed in March 2020.
But mistrust of government aid is widespread among immigrant communities, particularly for people who lack proper paperwork or who have an undocumented family member. Some of that mistrust stems from the “public charge” rule the Trump administration briefly implemented, which could have made someone less likely to be approved for lawful permanent residence, also known as a green card, if they had received benefits such as food assistance. Or, people might be worried about handing over personal information that they fear could help immigration authorities target them later.
“They need to have help but they don’t ask for it, because they’re scared of some kind of a paper trail,” said Jose Gomez, who manages the COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Village Exchange Center.
Gomez knows firsthand why some of the people he serves are afraid.
“My mom, she was from El Salvador. My dad is from Mexico. They came to the U.S. undocumented years ago during the Reagan era,” he told Newsline in May. “They lived in the shadows. They didn’t have access to a lot of resources, if you will. And I remember, me being the eldest, seeing them struggle through some of that because of the language barrier or the economic barriers.”
Gomez strives to see his day-to-day work through that lens. Besides organizing efforts to get the vaccine to Aurora’s immigrants and refugees, his job entails managing the Natural Helpers Program at Village Exchange Center. The program’s 100-plus natural helpers, also called resource navigators, come from all over the world and speak dozens of languages. The Natural Helpers Program is administered jointly with the city of Aurora.
Some natural helpers have pending immigration cases themselves, Gomez said, but have been in the country long enough to help newer arrivals navigate a new social and cultural environment and get the assistance they need.
The program has served an important purpose during the pandemic.
“Our natural helpers have been an amazing, amazing resource for connecting people in the immigrant or refugee community to the vaccine,” Gomez said. “(Some people) wouldn’t have gotten the vaccine if it weren’t for these folks that were out there.”
For former refugee Mohamed Juma, who works with various organizations in Denver and Aurora, being a natural helper is much more than just a job.
“I do have a few hours with each nonprofit that I get paid for, but other times, it’s still my community,” Juma said. “Even if I don’t get paid, I have to do it, because there’s nobody else they can go to where they can feel safe.”
Juma and his family spent eight years in a refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing a civil war and humanitarian crisis in their home country of Sudan. They arrived in the Denver area in 2013.
Juma has worked as a natural helper for the past six years. During the pandemic, Juma said, his role didn’t change much. He’s helped refugees with whom he shared a culture and language sign up for benefits such as food assistance and Medicaid, figure out how to take the bus to work, and set up technology for remote learning.
“We used to just meet one on one with people and get things done, but now, a lot of phone calls,” Juma said. “We have to teach people to download Zoom and we can connect (with) them that way.”
In rural Colorado, a coalition of public health organizations, social workers and immigrant rights advocates called Project Protect Food System Workers quickly assembled to support farm and ranch employees, who were far from the resources of metro Denver. A network of community public health workers, or promotoras, supported by the coalition helped deliver food, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and, later, vaccination resources, to migrant and seasonal workers.
Like the natural helpers, the promotoras come from the communities where they work and can communicate in multiple languages.
The pandemic showed the importance of “trusted community messengers,” Gonzales said. At the start of the pandemic, the immigrant community’s trust had been broken under deportation policies started by former President Barack Obama, she said, and “put on steroids” under then-President Donald Trump.
When COVID-19 hit, many immigrants were essential workers who couldn’t just work from home, she pointed out — meaning they were “forced to continue to risk their lives to show up to go to work.”
“It was really confusing and a really scary time for people. They were not turning to their local government, they were not turning to their state government,” Gonzales said. “And so we saw those community groups just be flooded — whether we’re talking about a nonprofit, whether we’re talking about a church, whether we’re talking about a health clinic — where folks did feel like they could go and ask for help.”
At the same time, Juma said, many of the immigrants and refugees he worked with were ready to meet the challenges of COVID-19 — even if they had trouble accessing benefits.
“If you don’t have a job, you can still survive here,” he said. “(After) dodging bullets and bombs and stuff like that, this is like nothing. This is, like, still heaven for refugees.”
Rethinking who gets help and how
At the Legislature, Gonzales has advocated for laws benefiting immigrant communities since taking office in 2019, and before that through her years of organizing work. But the 2020 and 2021 sessions proved to be watershed years for the immigrant advocacy movement in Colorado.
After the pandemic struck in 2020, Gonzales worked with Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, to pass legislation restricting landlord inquiries into immigrants’ citizenship status. Some of the legislators’ other priorities had to be put on hold due to the abbreviated time frame for that regular session.
In December of 2020, lawmakers returned to the Capitol for a special session called by Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat. They were charged with finding ways to spend extra sales and income tax revenue from the second half of 2020 — which came in higher than expected, despite pandemic shutdowns in the spring — to help Coloradans who’d suffered from health and economic impacts of COVID-19.
Gonzales partnered with Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, on legislation providing housing and direct cash assistance to people in need. That included undocumented immigrants.
In previous years, Republican state lawmakers had generally been opposed to pro-immigrant legislation. Gonzales took Holbert’s co-prime sponsorship of Senate Bill 20B-2 to indicate “the crisis was so dire that we all realized and recognized in real concrete ways: This is not the time to divide,” she said. “This is the time for us to come together.”
The legislation provided $54 million for housing assistance for Coloradans who were financially impacted by the pandemic, plus $5 million for emergency direct assistance to certain people, including undocumented immigrants, who wouldn’t have been eligible for other types of aid, such as unemployment insurance or stimulus checks. The $5 million was distributed to families through the Left Behind Workers Fund, a program established earlier in the year by wealthy donors and immigrant-rights organizations.
Before the pandemic hit, Colorado-based investor and philanthropist Mark Newhouse had been exploring the idea of providing cash for low-income people in need, rather than traditional services such as a food bank or job training.
Then, when COVID-19 arrived in the state — leading to mass lockdowns that left millions unemployed — Newhouse was contacted by Ed Briscoe, the founder of Impact Charitable. As Newhouse recalled it, Briscoe pointed out to him that many of the people being laid off from food and hospitality jobs were undocumented. Because they lacked Social Security numbers, undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits like other workers.
As the grandson of Jewish refugees, Newhouse felt he had a role to play in serving Colorado’s immigrant population, and he sprang into action. He drew on expertise from fellow members of Social Venture Partners Denver, a network of donors and nonprofits, as well as community members. They raised the first $80,000 for the Left Behind Workers Fund in 66 hours, he said.
“We knew, you know, one of the primary problems is this population does not get access to aid, and therefore how would you connect — how would you find them?” Newhouse said. To help answer that question, the team initially partnered with Aurora’s Village Exchange Center as well as the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, a network of groups providing resources to and advocating for immigrants around the state.
With additional help from Colorado Peoples Alliance, the Colorado Fiscal Institute, the Colorado Center for Law and Policy and others, the Left Behind Workers Fund scaled quickly, providing direct cash and rental assistance to thousands of undocumented Colorado families. The program was issuing 500 grants a week by June 2020, Newhouse said. It got an infusion of cash from the state’s general fund in December.
A variety of organizations have helped undocumented or mixed-status families in dire financial straits apply for the $1,000 one-time grants, as well as the rental assistance of up to three months. As the payment partner for the Left Behind Workers Fund in 2020, Village Exchange Center received public and private funds and issued approximately $12.6 million in payments, Executive Director Amanda Blaurock said.
The Left Behind Workers Fund ultimately distributed more than $24.8 million in aid, and counting. The assistance has gone out to households that include an estimated 23,700 children, according to statistics provided by Newhouse.
Leaders developed goals for their work that went beyond just getting help to people in desperate need.
“Workers without documentation who are employed and receive a pay stub, their employees are contributing to the unemployment insurance system on their behalf,” Newhouse explained, “but they are receiving no benefit. And so that became a policy objective to change that inequity.”
Undocumented and unemployed
Four Democratic state lawmakers embraced that vision with Senate Bill 21-233. Sens. Robert Rodriguez and Chris Hansen, both of Denver, along with Reps. Adrienne Benavidez of Adams County and Gonzales-Gutierrez, sponsored SB-233, which as originally written would have established a wage replacement program — like regular unemployment insurance — for people ineligible for unemployment benefits due to their immigration status.
Sofia Gonzalez, representing Colorado People’s Alliance, testified on behalf of the bill during a May hearing of the Senate Business, Labor, and Technology Committee. Gonzalez identified herself as undocumented, saying she was born in Mexico but had lived in the U.S. for 30 years.
“When I was young, it was hard for me to see my parents struggle just to provide the basic needs, and if they were out of a job, they were out of luck and so were we as their kids,” Gonzalez said. “Then you grow up, you have your own family, and I think it’s even worse when you become a parent and you think (your kids) deserve the best that you can give them just as any other family, but yet they struggle when you struggle.”
Gonzalez testified that she previously caught COVID-19 at work and passed it to her son. “If I’m not working, I can’t pay my bills and support my family, and I have nowhere to turn to (for) support,” she said.
She called on lawmakers “to support all Coloradans, including myself and my family, by ensuring that when things get tough and we lose our jobs due to no fault of our own, we have somewhere to go to for some temporary support to ensure that we have a roof over our head and bring food to the table.”
But Rodriguez asked the committee to approve an amendment essentially rewriting the bill so that it would, instead of creating an alternative to unemployment insurance, direct the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to study whether and how such a program would work.
The amended bill passed along party lines and was signed into law by Polis in July.
The executive director of CDLE, in partnership with the director of CDLE’s Division of Unemployment Insurance and New American advisor, is currently studying “the feasibility of establishing a contract with a nonprofit, third-party entity to administer a wage replacement program for individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own and who are ineligible for regular UI due to their immigration status,” Jessica Hudgins Smith, spokesperson with the Division of Unemployment Insurance, said in an August email.
That third-party entity could be the Left Behind Workers Fund, or something different, Newhouse said. The wage replacement program won’t look exactly like unemployment insurance because of federal constraints, he added, but it will “serve the same need.”
“Perhaps the Left Behind Workers Fund will play a role … because there certainly is a lot of trust in the community of the Left Behind Workers Fund,” Newhouse said. The existing fund’s distribution network “is basically a network of community-based organizations across the state which identify these individuals and screen these individuals and the fund sits behind them, basically, and does the mechanics of making sure the payments go out and resolving payment issues.”
The state’s ongoing feasibility study is considering potential funding sources, legal compliance with U.S. Department of Labor programs, data sharing and data privacy, Hudgins Smith said. The study is scheduled for completion no later than December.
People ineligible for unemployment benefits fill many important lower-wage jobs in Colorado’s health care and child care sectors, said Joshua Mantell, rapid response policy analyst with the Bell Policy Center, a progressive research and policy advocacy organization. By one national group’s estimate, noncitizens comprised 6% of the state’s direct-care workforce in 2019. That includes home health aides and nurse assistants.
Some undocumented workers pay income taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN. But even if undocumented workers don’t pay income taxes with an ITIN, they pay sales taxes on purchases, and pay property taxes on homes or indirectly through rent payments, Mantell pointed out.
“A lot of sales taxes and property taxes are done through local governments, and they end up doing things like supporting first responders and local police departments and school districts, of which many of these undocumented immigrants send their kids to schools and so they pay property taxes, and the schools rely on property taxes, and then their kids get the benefit of having an education,” Mantell said.
But without a Social Security number, they can’t access Medicaid, unemployment insurance and other federal benefits.
“When you had these folks who were in many ways on the front lines of the pandemic and not being eligible for assistance that everybody else was,” Mantell said, “it really kind of showed how unfair the system is and how much needs changing.”
Rios, for his part, wasn’t eligible for federal aid throughout most of the pandemic, even though he was working at the farm to provide food for the Aurora community. His immigration case is still pending, but he received a Social Security number in July, which allows him to sign up for health coverage and other benefits, he said.
“I still have to wait for the appointment with the immigration officer to see if I will be granted a green card or not,” Rios said in November, referring to lawful permanent residency. “So I am still waiting on that, but in the meantime I can work legally, and I can be more confident that I can be more stable here in the United States with a Social Security number.”
Federal law still prevents most people without U.S. citizenship or work authorization from receiving help through assistance programs such as Medicaid or food stamps. But the COVID-19 pandemic served as a backdrop for some major state-level changes aimed at leveling the playing field for undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families.
Senate Bill 21-77 — sponsored by Gonzales, Benavidez and Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat from Fort Collins — removed the requirement to verify lawful presence in order to receive professional licenses issued by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, as well as local governments.
A companion bill, Senate Bill 21-199, allowed people to apply for certain state and local public benefits and additional licenses without providing proof of lawful presence in the U.S. That bill was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County and Faith Winter of Westminster, along with House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo and Gonzales-Gutierrez.
Both bills passed mostly along party lines this year.
“The pandemic … forced us to really think about who’s working what jobs, and what does it mean if you’re an essential worker, but you’re also undocumented?” Gonzales said. “How can one be both an essential worker … whether that’s working the fields or being a nurse or a custodian, cleaning hospitals as people are trying to respond to the pandemic, and quite literally putting your life on the line so that the rest of us could stay at home? And it started to really force us as a society to rethink some of those long-term, long-held assumptions.”
It wasn’t just longtime immigrant rights advocates championing those bills, Gonzales added.
“I think there was a recognition … from the restaurant industry, from the hospital industry, and from business interests writ large that undocumented workers are also essential,” she said. “And so I think it opened up some new avenues to advance policy in ways that just hadn’t been contemplated beforehand.”
Lost in the system
The undocumented immigrants who spent all or part of the pandemic in detention facilities lived in a different reality, however.
“There are no (public health) security measures,” Kendra Escobar Perez — who spent months in Texas and Arizona immigration facilities during the first part of the pandemic — said in a text. “They do not care about migrants’ lives.” (Escobar Perez’s interview with Newsline was translated from Spanish by Emma Mure.)
In January of 2020, Escobar Perez fled gender-based persecution in her home country of El Salvador. She was granted asylum status in February, allowing her to live and work freely in the U.S. without threat of deportation.
Now living in an Aurora apartment, she sometimes longs for the family she left behind. And she’s left with painful memories from her journey to the southern border and difficult stay in detention — where, unlike a U.S. citizen facing criminal charges, she didn’t have the right to a public defender who would fight for her in court.
“Believe me, to come from my country to the United States is not easy,” Escobar Perez told Newsline in an interview. “I crossed all of Guatemala, Mexico, in order to be here in the United States. And in Guatemala and Mexico I went through so many ugly, ugly things. … People go hungry, people are attacked. There is violence against people who enter human trafficking, drug trafficking.”
Mexican border protection agents handed her over to U.S. immigration authorities, Escobar Perez said.
“In the custody of immigration authorities, I wasn’t treated right — I was harrassed and experienced so many ugly things,” she told Newsline.
“We do not need them to treat us like animals, because we are not animals, we are people,” she added, her voice thick with emotion. “We are only looking for a better life, nothing more.”
Just over a year after Escobar Perez left El Salvador, and about nine months after she was released from detention, she was granted asylum status.
Escobar Perez was one of the lucky ones. In fiscal year 2020, a record 71.6% of U.S. asylum claims were denied by immigration judges, according to data compiled by TRAC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with Syracuse University.
On top of that, the controversial Title 42 policy kept many desperate people from even getting a chance to apply for asylum. The pandemic-era interpretation of federal law, implemented under Trump and continued by Biden, allows immigration officers to immediately deport people who enter the country without proper documentation, without giving them a chance to apply for asylum based on persecution in their country of origin.
From October 2020 through September 2021, more than 1,040,000 people were expelled from the country under this interpretation of Title 42.
Then there was the issue of trying to manage a highly contagious, deadly disease in U.S. detention centers.
“Unfortunately folks in Immigrant and Customs Enforcement have lost their lives, unnecessarily so, because of COVID,” said Sarah Jackson, the founder of Casa de Paz. The nonprofit provides shelter, food and other services to people released from the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.
Nine people died of COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities, according to public records from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for 2020 and 2021. None of the deaths documented by ICE took place in Aurora.
However, since the pandemic began, ICE has reported 683 confirmed COVID-19 cases among individuals housed at the Aurora facility, which is run by private prison company GEO Group. That number comes from a Nov. 10 report issued to the office of Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, in whose district the facility sits.
People in immigration detention don’t have the right to an attorney, but those who can afford one, or who can obtain legal help through other means, have a much better chance of winning their cases. Legislation that Polis signed in June aims to open the door to legal representation to more migrants in Colorado.
Reps. Kerry Tipper, a Lakewood Democrat, and Naquetta Ricks, an Aurora Democrat, sponsored House Bill 21-1194 along with Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City. The new law establishes an immigration legal defense cash fund managed by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Lawmakers designated up to $90,000 for immigration legal defense grants in the fiscal year ending July 1, and $100,000 the following year. The fund can also accept private gifts, grants and donations.
Another new law aims to make the state more welcoming to immigrants of all backgrounds. Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat, and Gonzales sponsored House Bill 21-1150, which creates the Office of New Americans within the CDLE.
The office is tasked with promoting the integration and inclusion of immigrants and refugees across Colorado. It expands previous efforts by the grant-funded New American Initiative, which accommodated an advisor to recommend ways Polis’ administration could improve services for immigrants. Polis signed HB-1150 into law on June 25.
Gonzales believes the Office of New Americans could play a crucial role in communicating about potential federal changes that would open a pathway to citizenship for thousands of people in Colorado. Democrats have been pushing for the changes to be included in the so-called Build Back Better budget package that’s hit a stalemate in Congress.
“We stood up an Office of New Americans to help assist in providing mechanisms to get good information out to folks, and so in the event that we see some sort of reform package, that’s going to be a primary function of that office,” Gonzales said. “If we don’t see immigration reform move, we will continue to see families who are navigating economic uncertainty, who are trying to provide for their families.”
“We’re at the forefront nationally of advancing structural equity for immigrant communities,” she added. “It’s now time for Congress to act.”
Looking toward the future
When Escobar Perez arrived in Aurora, she didn’t know anyone, but she received help from the nonprofit Casa de Paz after being processed at the detention facility and upon her release into the community.
It took two months to find employment — not having an ID made that part difficult, Escobar Perez recalls. Now, though she has a job, apartment, and proper documents, Escobar Perez doesn’t want to leave her past behind. She wants to advocate for other asylum seekers from the LGBTQ community who fled violence in their home countries. And she dreams of one day becoming a psychologist.
“Here in the United States there are not many psychologists who speak Spanish,” she said, “and it can be difficult to talk with your psychologist and an interpreter and share so many ugly things from your life.”
Likewise, Rios sees a future for himself in growing foods that benefit immigrants in his community. He believes that could go beyond improving access to nutritious food.
In June, Rios described his vision for a farm he’d call Green Hero.
To illustrate the purpose of Green Hero, Rios related a personal frustration. When Rios’ grandmother was still alive, he used to drink passion fruit juice with her. After she died years ago, sipping on passion fruit juice would help to bring back the memories of those happy times. But Rios hasn’t seen passion fruit juice since he arrived in Colorado.
He wants to learn more about farming techniques for creating microclimates with the heat and moisture levels necessary to grow produce that other immigrants miss from home.
“Imagine the power … a fruit or a certain vegetable can (have) in your life,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 3:35 p.m. Nov. 17, 2021, to clarify Village Exchange Center’s involvement with the Left Behind Workers Fund.
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