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.
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."
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?"
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