This week, States Newsroom outlets including Colorado Newsline featured refugees from around the country in honor of World Refugee Day. Colorado state Rep. Naquetta Ricks, a Democrat who represents Aurora and a Liberian refugee, was among those featured.
Ricks — whose family fled political persecution in Liberia in 1980 — became the first African immigrant to serve in the Colorado General Assembly upon her election last year.
When Ricks, 54, was a child in Liberia, dissidents involved in a violent military coup broke into her home and held her mother at gunpoint for nearly two hours, she told Newsline.
“They were looking for a government official, who was my mom’s fiance,” she said. “After searching our home, they eventually found him and they dragged my mother and him to our driveway, and they threw him into the back of a pickup truck. By the grace of God, they did not take my mom.”
Ricks’ mother’s fiance was executed, she said, and the family fled the country.
Besides sharing details of her background as a Liberian refugee, Ricks spoke with Newsline about her political career and legislative priorities. Outside of politics, Ricks works as a mortgage broker, and she founded the African Chamber of Commerce of Colorado.
Below, read Newsline’s interview with Ricks, edited for clarity and brevity.
Newsline: Could you start by talking a bit about the events that led up to your family leaving Liberia?
Ricks: After they dragged the my mom’s fiance off, we knew that the soldiers would come back to the house. So we grabbed one suitcase apiece, whatever we could grab, and we just ran to a relative’s house in the city. That was, like, April of 1980, and we stayed at my relative’s house … My mom got a medical leave of absence (from work), and then we were able to come to the United States. We came to Chicago for the first couple of months, and by August of that year we ended up here in Aurora, Colorado, where we have family members.
How long did it take between applying for refugee status and being accepted into the U.S.?
When we came, we did not have refugee status. My mom asked for a medical leave, we came as visitors, and so after we came into the United States … we applied first for asylum because of the atrocities that my mom and us had suffered there in Liberia. We had newspaper articles and all of that, but we were unable to prove our case, because we didn’t have a lawyer. And so we went through several iterations with the immigration system, and then it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan (signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) that we had a pathway to citizenship.
How did you feel in the first few weeks after arriving in the U.S.? What do you remember most about it?
I remember landing in Chicago, and we’re like coming up in the escalator — I think it was my first time seeing an escalator, and I had on this long African gown — and I was very scared to go up the escalator. We went to go live with my mom’s sister-in-law in Chicago, and the first day after we got there, I think we changed clothing, and then there was a Jack in the Box up the street. (My sister and I were) like, “Oh my god, American hamburgers and french fries!” … It was really exciting just to be in the U.S. and just, you know, eating American food.
Was there anything that was difficult, anything that you missed from Liberia?
We stayed two months in Chicago. We came to Colorado and — I mean, we left everything, right? So here we are, we have to get acclimated to new schools, make new friends, we left everything. I remember going to Central High School, the first day during lunchtime, and I’m like a deer in the headlights: I’m shy, kind of awkward. And just standing in that lunchroom looking around, not knowing anybody … People would be like, “Where you from? You got an accent.” I’m like, “Yes, I have an accent, so do you!” … I used to get all these silly questions, (like) “Do you wear clothes in Africa? Do you drive cars?”
It was a little embarrassing for me being a shy, awkward teenager. … I missed my friends. I missed, you know, my normal environment, and there I was in this new place trying to make it home.
Do you feel like if you had immigrated later in life, it might have been more difficult?
My mother had lived here before, she lived in California, because she was college-educated here. … It wasn’t foreign for people to come back and forth. … but just being uprooted, you know — because all of a sudden you’re plucked up from everything you know and thrust into a whole other country — it was traumatic. And then I think for the longest time, I didn’t really know that I had gone through trauma (and) didn’t want to talk about what we had gone through to get here. … But very thankful that the worst didn’t happen, because so many people had gotten raped, gotten killed, so we were the fortunate ones to be able to get out. … I’m glad that we had a place to run to, a place to seek refuge.
Do you feel like once you were able to realize you experienced trauma, then you were able to heal from it? What helped you cope?
I don’t think that I realized that I had gone through trauma until — I don’t know, in the last 10 years. (My focus was) “You’re going to go get a college degree, you’re going to make a better life for yourself,” and just having that determination and that drive. Everything was just focused and directed in that vein, and it was all about being successful, you know, taking advantage of the opportunities that were in front of us and trying not to look back too much. But I think in the last 10 years as I think about my life and where I’ve come from … that was a lot of trauma, like (that was) so much to overcome.
What do you wish that people outside the refugee and immigrant communities understood about those communities?
Yes, America is one of the greatest countries in the world, but people come because they are running from trauma, political unrest, they come because they’re running from famine and war. … People are here because they’re seeking a better life. They’re seeking a place where they can live and they can thrive, and I think that immigrants contribute so much to the United States. … We are part of this fabric of this country. We are here to make this place a better place. We work hard, we’re entrepreneurial. We want the same things that most families want. We want a great education, we want good health care, we want great jobs, and wherever we can, we contribute to our communities.
(Population trends show) Coloradoans are not having as many children, so that there is going to be a decline in population, and in order for us to keep up with our economy, we are going to need, you know, workers. And so immigrants are one way of increasing that. Of course, we want people who are born here as well, native-born, but I think that all of us collectively contribute to a great society and help make Colorado what we all want it to be.
What made you decide to run for elected office?
I started running for office about seven years ago, so it was a seven-year journey. I didn’t just step out there and win. My first run was for the (University of Colorado) Board of Regents, because it had to do with education, and I believe that education is important, and it is the great equalizer for people. … Education can open so many doors for advancement for people, and my parents stressed the value of a great education always, so college was always where we were going and there was no other option but college. At any rate, I ran for that after taking classes through (Emerge Colorado), which trains women to run for office, and I never saw myself as a politician. But after getting out there, I got over 100,000 votes because it was a statewide seat, but it wasn’t enough to win. I ran again in 2017 for (Aurora) City Council. I came in third, and then I thought, “Well, maybe this wasn’t meant to be,” (that) I wasn’t supposed to be a politician.
Then during the last (presidential) administration, there was a lot of rhetoric that was very negative about immigrants — that immigrants were criminals (and) gangbangers. … All of this negative rhetoric made me (think) that we really need people who are going to talk about the contributions of immigrants and that their voices need to be heard. They are underrepresented, they are underserved when it comes to politics, and so I think it was important to have some different voices to bring the true reflection of immigrants to the table. And so that made me want to run. It fueled my passion for running.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments from the legislative session?
(Senate Bill 21-241) has just been signed by the governor. … It was a federal stimulus bill (to help entrepreneurs) get the consultations and the expertise they need to make their businesses grow. And so I’m thrilled about that. I’m also thrilled about the towing bill that I did. That has gotten a lot of interest, because … it’s a punitive situation once (tow truck companies) get your car, because you on average will pay at least $300 and more to get your car out. So we’re looking into how those fees are being assessed and looking at a task force that is monitoring that situation and making sure that is more inclusive of consumer protection … so that is a bill that I’m proud of. I did a bill around a pilot program for disabled workers within Colorado. That’s something to help our disabled community feel valued and so that they are also able to get jobs and using the talents and gifts that they have.
I cosponsored (Senate Bill 21-169) with Sen. (Janet) Buckner (D-Aurora). And that is something that hasn’t been done before. We, Colorado, will be the first in the nation to look at how insurance companies are using your data. For example, credit is a piece of data that they use that has no correlation to whether or not you are a bad driver. However, you get hit by the insurance companies because you have bad credit. … Because of bad credit, they feel that they should charge more.
I also did a bill where tenants can now report their rental history on their credit report, and this is to help people who have no credit, who are credit-invisible … build a credit profile. Over the next 18 months, we’ll be working on that pilot program, and people will also get financial literacy classes when they opt into this voluntary program. So we’ll see how this looks and see if this is eventually something that we want to take statewide. So that’s just a few of the bills. I think we did some really great work all across the Legislature this year.
Any policies you’re working on for next session?
The issue of housing and affordable housing in Colorado remains a big issue, and I think it’s going to take … some creativity to try to solve it. There’s no magic bullet for this problem, but getting some collective minds and studying what other people are doing and how we can adapt that for Colorado is a space that I definitely want to delve more into. And so I will be looking at how we can improve housing and offer opportunities for people to become homeowners in Colorado.
As I understand it, you made history by becoming the first African immigrant to serve in the state Legislature.
I am the first African immigrant elected to a Colorado state legislature. … When I got elected in November, (Nathan Biah) was elected into the Rhode Island state Legislature. So we both made history (as the first Liberian Americans elected to a state legislature).
What does that mean to you, and what do you think are the effects of having more diversity among elected officials?
First of all, it’s exciting and I’m thrilled, but I also think that I’m not going to be last. I want to open the door. I think that the glass ceiling has been busted through and now others can come in behind me. I think it’s important to serve my constituents well, lead with integrity and be someone that can help to make change … I’ve already had other people who are so inspired by this who are telling me that they want me to mentor them, so we are going to have more people come to serve as state legislators and school board members.
I think that we should have people from diverse backgrounds. I think representation does matter, and it’s important to bring not only your ethnic identity markers to the table, and your culture, but also the expertise that you have. Whether it’s from schooling or from your work experience or whatever it is, there’s so many things that we can bring to bear within legislation. And I saw that in the committees that I served on. I served on the Business Affairs and Labor Committee. I also served on the (Public and Behavioral) Health and Human Services Committee. And in all of those committees, my work experience as a small business owner, or working in corporate America, or just the experience that I gained through the community always came to bear … (as) a single mom, a Black woman, small business owner — whatever it is.