The Children of Iowa ICE Raids

New America Media, News Report , Marcelo Ballvé Posted: Jul 10, 2008

Editor's Note: In the aftermath of ICE raids the world has turned upside down for hundreds of Postville youth who once led normal lives — attending church and school, playing sports and starting garage bands. Marcelo Ballvé is a New York-based writer for New America Media.

Traducción al español


POSTVILLE, Iowa – Jairo Chuy Melendrez, 13, played the drums. His brother Aldo, 11, played the bass. Their 14-year-old friends Jonter Gómez and Mainor Ordoñez played the 12-string guitar and accordion, respectively.

They might have been typical American youth starting their first garage band. Except in this case they played Christian music in Spanish as Grupo Sin Fronteras. They performed once a week at evangelical services, which were attended primarily by Guatemalan immigrants and held at a borrowed venue in this small Iowa town.

The boys were talented enough so that with the help of 28-year-old bandleader and vocalist Gabriel de León they put out a self-produced CD last year called "Derribando Fronteras," or "Tearing Down Borders."

On May 12, all of this changed. An immigration raid led to the arrest of not only De León, the bandleader, but also the church's pastor, Eddy Santos, and the boys' mothers. Two months after the raid, De León has been deported to Mexico, Santos is in prison, and the boys' mothers still wear ankle bracelets so they can be monitored by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while they await court dates for immigration charges.

Sonia Melendrez, 28, the mother of Jairo and Aldo, expects to be deported to Guatemala once she goes to court, and is trying to figure out how to send her kids back home ahead of her.

"My boys will have to leave behind their dream," she says. "That's what fills me with the most regret."

The story of Grupo Sin Fronteras is one example among many of young lives that unraveled in the aftermath of the Postville raid, in which scores of armed agents, with helicopter backup, arrested nearly 400 undocumented workers at the local Agriprocessors meatpacking plant.

"I'm really sad about it. I think about Gabriel (the bandleader) and feel really strange" that he's gone, says Jairo, a skinny teenager who was sprawled out on a couch at home, watching TV with his three siblings. "I know I'll probably never play music with him again."

In tiny Postville, the world has turned upside down for hundreds of children and teenagers who once led relatively normal lives — attending church and school, speaking two languages, playing sports.

The change came suddenly, in the course of a single day.

Many in Postville remember how teachers went from classroom to classroom at the local school the day of the raid, separating out the children of those who had been arrested so they could be taken to St. Bridget's Catholic Church. The church became the gathering place for scores of fearful immigrant families once the news spread. It was where they hid in fear of being arrested, and where they anxiously awaited news of relatives' fates. It was also where some of the roughly 40 women released on humanitarian grounds — with ankle bracelet monitoring devices — had tearful reunions with their children.

More than 300 other workers, including many mothers and fathers, would not be seen again in Postville.

"I don't know if we can really comprehend how this has affected the children," says Sister Mary McCauley of St. Bridget's Church. "I'm wondering what the long term effect of this is going to be. It has really shattered family life."

'A thousand times my fault'

Some young people didn't lose their parents, but their jobs. At least 17 underage workers, ranging in ages from 14 to 17, were arrested the day of the raid, according to attorney Sonia Parras Konrad.

Three of them are presently in custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement — in Chicago, San Diego and New York City — because the children claimed they were in the country as unaccompanied minors.

Parras says in two of these cases this wasn't true: the children lied simply out of fear of putting their parents in harm's way. She is now working to have both released.

Another minor already has been deported to Guatemala.

Parras also represents 11 undocumented underage workers in a pro-bono effort to obtain U visas, which are given to victims of violence or abuse and would allow the teenagers to remain in the country.

"These kids, these minors, they're scared, they don't know what's going on," she says. "They worked hard to do the right thing by their families, to help support them. Now they have been caught in this web of law enforcement, of officers with uniforms and guns. Imagine how frightening the scenario is for a teenager."

ICE has been cooperative and efficient in handling the minors' cases, she notes. The minors do not wear ankle bracelets, but only intermittently are required to report to immigration authorities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in order to prove they are still physically in the country. The liberal supervision regime doesn't mean it's easy for them, however.

"You wouldn't believe the panicked situation when they learned they had to report," says Parras. "They thought they were going to be sent home to their countries, if that word 'home' has any meaning for them anymore, because some of them really don't have a home," in their country of origin.

That's the case for Luis Nava González, 17, a stocky teenager with clipped black hair and a gruff attitude who was brought to the United States from Mexico at the age of three. He worked at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in order to support his widowed mother and two younger siblings. Along with other underage workers, he operated a sort of chainsaw used to dismember cows.

His mother, Consuelo González, a former Agriprocessors employee herself, suffered a workplace accident — she fell down some stairs —and is no longer able to handle heavy work. She has supplemented her son's income with babysitting and daycare work.

Now, she doesn't know how she'll support herself without him as the principal breadwinner. And he faces deportation to a country where he has no real experience and no one to look after him besides distant aunts and uncles.

"I hug him at night and talk to him like they do in the soap operas," says Consuelo. "I say, 'Don't go, mi bombón de chocolate.' He acts tough, but he's extremely nervous all the time. He's having a very hard time. He asks me, 'What am I going to do in Mexico?'"

One afternoon, Luis opens their apartment's screen door halfway to ask his mother if he can go with some friends to Wal-Mart in Decorah, a town a half-hour away. She looks fearfully at him and makes him solemnly promise he won't drive.

"None of this is his fault," she says after he leaves. "It's my fault. It's a thousand times my fault for having brought him here."

A few blocks across Main Street, Abner López, 17, lives with his father Cleotildo, 40, who is one of the few men released with an ankle bracelet device. Abner also worked at the meatpacking plant, and when asked about work conditions, he simply smiles and says, "Very cold," and curls his hands into claws to show how his fingers would stiffen in the course of a day's work.

The day of the raid, says Cleotildo, he embraced his son once he found him outside the plant where the detainees were being processed. He told Abner to place himself in God's hands, "because there's nothing else we can do now."

According to federal labor law, children under the age of 18 are prohibited from "operating power-driven meat-processing machines, and slaughtering, meat packing or processing, and rendering." It's alleged that children were involved in many of these activities at Agriprocessors.

"We have cases of kids... who were using chainsaws to open up cows. That's pretty dangerous," says Parras. "A lot of them were using knives." She also alleges that there was a concerted practice at Agriprocessors of hiring underage workers in order to fill an incessant need for manpower. Some of the detainees have alleged that Agriprocessors knowingly overlooked the age of workers.

Juda Engelmayer, senior vice president for 5WPR, a New York PR firm working for the meatpacker, denies that Agriprocessors had a policy of hiring underage workers or that the company knowingly did so.

Considering that many of the workers were arrested on identity theft charges, he says, "It is possible that some underage people assumed the identities of individuals of legal age." Engelmayer adds that Agriprocessors would fire any employee determined to be lying about being over 18.

'I have nothing in Mexico'

Although ICE intended it as a humanitarian gesture when they allowed certain parents to return home to their children, the released arrestees are hobbled by the shame of the monitoring device — not to mention their inability to provide for their children while waiting for court dates. In all, some 70 children are now living in Postville with parents wearing ankle bracelets.

Since the parents can't legally work, and can't yet leave, they must rely on Postville's overtaxed food pantry and religious charities for checks to help them pay the factory town's inflated rents: as much as $800 for an apartment in a town of 2,000 people in remote northeastern Iowa.

"I feel like I might as well be in prison," says Anacleta Taj Taj López, 24, mother of a chubby and rambunctious seven-year-old. Her husband and three brothers also were arrested in the raids. She comforts her son by telling him that his father is already back home in Guatemala – although he is actually in prison. "He says he wants to be back in Guatemala with his father," she says.

Sonia Melendrez and her youngest son Romi, 4
The strain may show most clearly on the parents, but it's the children who probably absorb the anxiety and fear most deeply.

María Guadalupe López, 42, says her young daughter clings to her at different times throughout the day, asking if her mother is going to be taken away again.

"I can't imagine the grief of these children, the loss they've felt," says David Vázquez, campus pastor at Luther College in Decorah, and one of those involved in the ecumenical relief effort. He remembers a little girl who not so long after the raids pointed at a plane and asked if it was coming to take her family away.

The children face another major change: the realization that they'll have to leave the only school they've known. Sonia Melendrez, 28, the musicians' mother, had a lump in her throat when the school enrollment officer came to her door recently and she had to say there was no need for her to enroll her kids this year.

Quendi Alejandra García, 22, has been in the United States nine years and both of her daughters were born here. She prays to be allowed to stay when she has her court date Oct. 14, so that she can keep two-year-old Edith and six-year-old Gabriela in their school, and avoid having to start from scratch in Mexico. "I don't have a house there, I don't have savings, I don't have anything," she says. When she sees the judge, she says she is "going to ask him to let me stay here in my daughters’ country, so they can study, so they can be somebody, and never have to suffer what I suffered."

'What else?'

Two brothers were left without their wives in the raid's aftermath.

The women, fearing their children and husbands would be apprehended if they admitted to having them, lied to immigration agents after the raid and said their husbands and children were in Mexico. So instead of being released with ankle bracelets to look after their children, they were taken to prison.

Their husbands were left to care for seven children between them.

The father with five children did not want to be identified or answer questions, for fear of being detained and deported, but a visit to his home gave a clear indication of how heavily the burden of housekeeping and child-rearing was weighing on him. The five children, dressed haphazardly, stood around listlessly while their father slumped next to the kitchen table, obviously exhausted.

Two twin 11-year-old girls were his only help with the chores and childcare. A toddler sat in a high chair, though he was not being fed.

Flies buzzed around a naked bulb above the kitchen table.

When asked whether he would manage okay, the father shrugged: "¿Qué más?" "What else?"

Related Articles:

After Iowa Raid, Families in Limbo

Immigration Raids Lead U.S. to a Moral, Legal Crisis

Raw Nerves Remain After New ICE Arrest in Iowa

When an immigrant mom gets arrested


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User Comments


Boo Hoo on Aug 01, 2008 at 11:49:53 said:

So Agriprocessors Inc. was raided. Do we really need another sob story criminalizing this nation’s laws and the agencies that enforce them? Those that choose to enter the U.S. illegally know deportation is a consequence when caught; their own irresponsible actions place their children and families at risk. They have the option of taking their children with them but choose to parade and use them as pawns in hope that their own illegal status will be overlooked.

Other articles state the illegals are “doing work that American workers don’t want to do.” One would think that America never had meat processing plants or fresh picked produce before the illegals invaded the work force. Is Agriprocessors’ success as the nation’s larges kosher meat processor really due to the illegal workers? Or is it the fact that American workers have been replaced with low-wage illegals giving Agriprocessors Inc. an unfair advantage over their competition?


Lee on Aug 01, 2008 at 08:24:43 said:

Yes, children of criminals suffer from their parents' choices. Since when has this not been a sad reality? But if we're going to forgive criminals because they have children, then we'll have to empty the jails because illegal alien work thieves are no more deserving of sympathy than any other kind of criminal.


nativessayno on Jul 18, 2008 at 11:29:38 said:

Peace in Soul is so smart that he has cultivated a jingoistic name-calling rant and then wants us to: "Cultivate your soul not your hate or fear".

I think that Peace in Soul is also the nohate poster ,...they both have the same tortured lack of objective awareness and reason. They seem very very young.

Love is cool, true...very glib observation, but frankly you seem high. My guess is that you do not actually know anything about the nazis kkk etc. My father killed nazi's in 1941 for your future sake....too bad that some he fought for are currently so bemused.


nohate on Jul 18, 2008 at 10:24:03 said:

This is not Cape Town. I believe this is the land where KKK chameleons can no longer hide. Fear and hate kills your insides. It devours your dreams and feeds on your anger.
Breath and be awaken by your love and stay away from your hate.
The land is not attached to the color of your skin but rather to the sky which sees no limits.
Why do you choose to live in hate and fear?
Free yourself.
LOVE IS COOL HATE IS A KILLER


jbillalpando on Jul 18, 2008 at 09:27:17 said:

deport them if they are here illegal what else can you do as for the kid it is the parents responsibility for the safety of the children that the reason we have to stop giving them citenzenship no more anchoring thats the reason they come here to anchor wait 20 years from now we are going to be to the brim


Peace in Soul on Jul 17, 2008 at 11:18:25 said:

KKK Nazi Aryans go back to your knuckle dragging place in the evolutionary ladder.
I know most of you cannot spell DNA, let alone understand the concept behind bio-diversity and its link to a healthy planet, so I will only try not to laugh as I hink of the hate that you carry around on a daily basis. I feel so sorry for you.
Remember, just because you have a brain, it, by no means, implies that you know how to use it.
Cultivate your soul not your hate or fear.


Aaron Mallory on Jul 12, 2008 at 11:40:16 said:

I dont have enough space to comment but I will point out that this is a very complex issue that has more to do with the very rich in the United States giving up on the American people. They control production but only seek to employ the cheapest labor. They help create policies with Washington to bring in migrant workers because they want to unemploy as many as possible. This ruling elite want nothing to do with a national identity. If they did Dubai, UAE would not be the travel capital of the world.

It a complex question and I dont have enough space to answer it. I hope your disfavor of migrant workers doesn't keep you from learning from good people.


nativessayno on Jul 11, 2008 at 16:57:48 said:

I agree with Kate. In LA the weepy violin is not necessary for the embattled "migrant" because they have within 24 months vitually cornered all service sector markets with autority and with impunity....let's just say millions of fraud workers, millions!

Let's take Ralph's Grocery as an example. In '05 they had a %, maybe 20-23% of Latino workers; many/most probably citizen's.

Today...right now- this minute, let's take the Westwood store on Le Conte....65% or more are Latino at least 65% are new arrivals (fraud workers)....This is one example of the true "migrant" story/picture.

I ask: How does this serve citizens? How is this good for my country? This company exploits everyone involved; workers, legal workers that won't be hired, (formerly a well-paying job), why are we expected to tolerate this???

Aaron, as a first american...I think I know what constitutes a genuine American identity. It "aint" a fraud worker that comes here then tells me how to run the show to benifit them! That's crazy.

The whole young victim ploy (while sad), is a steely cold manipulation of our generosity, services, laws, culture.

Aaron, explain how my father that fought on Omaha Beach while only 18 yrs old didn't have a genuine American "identity"? You do not know what you are talking about.

Hogwash! Cry me a river for the poor, sad people that have their lives disrupted and inconvenienced to have to go back home.....


kate on Jul 11, 2008 at 14:48:26 said:

I completely disagree with nativessayYES's comments.

American companies are addicted to cheap, immigrant labor. They want to compete with China by paying Chinese like wages. Sure it's great for investors, but blue collar American workers are paying the price. The Republicans make it out like American workers are too busy at their 50 dollar an hour computer programming jobs to do manual labor, and that Americans can't possibly fill these jobs without importing impoverished people from the 3rd world. But if you've been to the Midwest recently, you'd know how completely untrue this is.

There are many Americans who have simply given up trying to find a job, they aren't counted in those low unemployment statistics. The loss of the blue collar jobs in the midwest has been devastating. Who knows if Americans can fill all the jobs vacated by illegals, but our government has an obligation to it's citizens, not to companies who violate the law to get cheap labor. These big companies know Americans won't work for dirt cheap wages in terrible working conditions the way illegals will. That's why they want illegal immigration, even if another amnesty is passed, companies will continue to employ illegal immigrants.

I work for a company that hires illegal aliens for cleaning and maintenance. It's a big entertainment company in Hollywood. This company would have no problem hiring American citizens wanting a chance to get their foot in the door in a place like this. Instead, they hire a bunch of poor little guatemalan ladies to do the cleaning, who never complain, and have no chance of ever advancing. I find that completely un-American.


nativessayYES on Jul 11, 2008 at 09:08:23 said:

This is hilarious. The same people who are first to cry about the increase in oil and food prices are the first to call on imigrants to go home and yell GOD BLESS AMERICA! There is a direct correlation between cheap food prices and immigrant workers that has partially allowed our economic system grow.

The fact is we cant afford to let these immigrants go home, we need them and they are ingrained in our economic system. The fact that they are illegal stems more from the fact that government agencies are slow and inefficient(DMV anyone?), and have failed to increase guest worker programs, as some of you arugue we should allow people in through.

And the fact is there arent enough people to fill these jobs. The national unemployment rate stands at 5%, the sudden loss of 11-12 million workers could be potentially devastating.

We just need to thinkl about this rationally.


gr8holomes on Jul 10, 2008 at 23:35:20 said:

As an American I agree with Irene and Nezzie. Yes , it is time for them to go home , wherever they came from. and if for some reason we would need foriegn national low wage workers,we could bring them in with proper documentation. And we certainly would not want anyone who had already stolen into our country . Please do not edit Americans who feel that their ancestors ,all Americans would not be proud of how thier country has been invaded. Not a dream,our country. We are todays Americans, this is all we have of a once soveriegn nation and must be saved for our future generations. Now


Peace on Jul 10, 2008 at 15:12:36 said:

What is this the Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi Youth comment page? I am baffled that so many racist nativist are spraying their spew here. I invite any of these people to speak what is on really on their mind- FEAR.
I am really reminded of when I worked covering stories in South Africa and how the whites reacted to their situation as the power structure was changing.


kate on Jul 10, 2008 at 12:54:14 said:

These people shouldn't be here. They are illegally in this country and now are suffering the consequences. Who cares if the kids are suffering? Kids suffer when they're parents commit crimes, whether American or foreign national. Children shouldn't be human shields against arrest. Criminals are criminals, and they deserve what they get, if they're worried about they're kids, they shouldn't have broken the law in the first place. Look at how many Americans are in jail, bet their kids are suffering, but all the liberal news media just wants to bellyache about the poor illegals.


Aaron Mallory on Jul 10, 2008 at 12:35:11 said:

I believe this issuse is way more complicated than a nationalist point of view can analyze. But it is key to remember that our national idenidity, as of now, is based off of the struggles of migrant workers. Without them, what constitutes an American? During the cold war, American was not communist. Before the War being white was American. As being a native born was an American versus Irish etc... The point I am trying to make is that, the united States lacks a genuine indentitiy. We don't have the history the french do or the English. Thus we have had to create an ideological based indentity which is root in exclusion from civic participation.

2nd, The standard of living we enjoy low wage earners are a necessity. Without them what justification do we have as a people to be individuals who are only looking out of our self interest? If we are going to promote libertarian free trade capitalism then we need examples of how that liberate is threaten for us to operate. Migrant workers fill this void as firms want to maximize profits because of libertarian values which undercut American workers. It is easier to find a job undocumented in many major cities right now. Now we can't blame individuals for this, we have to blame a system that functions on exclusion.

America is fine, we just need to be realistic about the system we have. Its one that is not based on equality and it never has been. I was forcefully brought to the Americas, I had no say in that. That trumps my civil liberty. Even original sin can be viewed as in infringement on my constitutional rights to life liberty and happiness. What if I never wanted to be here in the first place?


Irene on Jul 10, 2008 at 09:21:22 said:

Well, that what happens when the law catches up with a person who flaunts it. Same thing happens to families of people who forge checks, steal, or have to be arrested for whatever reason. There is no difference whatsoever. It\'s parents\' responsibility to ensure that they are not jeopardizing their kid\'s welfare. Having scores of kids without backup plan while breaking laws is a stupid idea. So, they have to sleep in a bed that they have made. Just a consequence of illegal behavior.


Nezzie on Jul 10, 2008 at 08:26:38 said:

This is unfortunate, but it is time for these people to go home. Corporate America should be ashamed of themselves, but these people knew they were breaking the law when they came across that border with the intention of stealing identities and assuming false citizenship. It is a shame that they also teach their children that lying and stealing is ok, as long as it is done in the name of the lord. Goodness, what in the world does the church think they are doing for aidding and abetting people who are invading our country and then expect the American people to feel sorry for them. When I watch youtube.com and read immigrationwatchdog.com, and the steinreport, all I can say is, America, we really need to be our own lobbyist! We must band together, and send a loud message to the people we elected to do the job we sent them to do and that is to protect our rights as citizens and uphold the Constitution as the Framers intended. We need to amend the Constitution back to what the 14th amendment was intended to be and that is not \"any person born in the US is a US citizen\" that is a bunch of crap. If we need these people we can invite them back to help us while they get helped in the process. Then they need to go home. Please signup with any grassroot organization in your area that is trying to help save America! Please help us save Maryland as well. Helpsavemaryland.com. GOD BLESS AMERICA!

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