The Postville 28 -- Women Immigrants Fight to Stay in U.S.

New America Media, News Feature//Video, Marcelo Ballvé Posted: Sep 30, 2008

POSTVILLE, Iowa-- The women could have just packed up a few belongings, gently broken the news to their children they could no longer remain in this country, and gone back to Mexico and Guatemala.

Cruz Rodríguez, 31, thought she would do just that in the days after May 12, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents stormed a kosher meatpacking plant in this small town, arresting her and nearly 400 other undocumented workers.

VIDEO: Cruz "Maricruz" Rodríguez -- a personal message to ICE.

Rodríguez was among some 40 detainees, almost all women, ICE released with ankle bracelet monitoring devices the day of the raid, so they could care for their children as they waited to see an immigration judge. As the weeks and months wore on, many opted for deportation once courts gave them the chance, returning to rural villages in Guatemala and Mexico some thought they'd left behind for good.

Twenty-eight of the women, however, including Rodríguez, remain in Postville, fighting deportation by applying for political asylum or special visas, according to the Hispanic Ministry at St. Bridget's Catholic Church, nerve-center of immigrants' organizing efforts.

"At first I felt very depressed, I didn't see the purpose in anything," says Rodríguez, who is from Mexico. "But then, when I saw there was hope, I said to myself, this was an opportunity life had given me."

Rodríguez has three boys. While her youngest two are U.S. citizens, 13-year-old Alejandro was born in Mexico. She says more than anything else, it's concern for her eldest son's future that pushed her to fight to stay. "The youngest two have citizenship, so they'll eventually be able to come and go as they please," she says, "but Alejandro worries me, because he wants to keep studying."

For all the women, it has been a topsy-turvy, emotionally demanding 4-month bureaucratic and legal odyssey.

"I didn't know anything about rights, or laws, or anything like that," says María Laura Gómez, 31, who arrived in Postville from Guatemala in 2005 and worked in the plant packing chicken parts into styrofoam containers.

VIDEO: María Laura Gómez -- Why she is fighting deportation.

As their cases moved forward, the women have dug up identity documents and years of personal records from their homes, attended court hearings, sat through rounds of debriefings with lawyers and legal assistants, and filled out mounds of paperwork. The not knowing is the worst part, they say. On most days, as they sit at home unable to work, the phone doesn't ring with news, and the mailbox doesn't produce a letter or notice offering a firmer idea of how their case is faring, for better or worse.

Their pro-bono lawyers admit it's difficult to know what might happen, in part because the women's arguments to remain in the country rely on emerging, sketchily defined areas of immigration law.

In Rodríguez's case, she's applying for political asylum, seeking protection from her alcoholic, abusive ex-husband, who she immigrated with but separated from nearly three years ago, completing her divorce earlier this year. Because Mexican authorities have proven woefully inadequate in protecting domestic abuse victims, she can apply for asylum under U.S. law as a "member of a particular social group" that a foreign government isn't able to adequately shield from persecution, says Rachel Yamamoto, an Omaha attorney.

"From what she's told me, the husband would follow her back to Mexico," Yamamoto says, "and she's terrified. You can't go to the police, the police won't help in Mexico."

Yamamoto, along with colleague David Lanphier, also represents another Postville detainee who is making a similar asylum claim. The problem is that U.S. courts haven't issued clear guidelines to be adopted for domestic violence-related asylum claims, such as the well-publicized case of Guatemalan immigrant Rodi Alvarado Peña, which has been in legal limbo for over 10 years.

"It's a very new area in the law, it doesn't fit cleanly into the existing framework of asylum law, but you can make it fit," says Yamamoto.

Another recourse available is a U Visa, which is a three-year temporary residence granted to victims of crimes who are helping U.S. authorities investigate and prosecute the criminal activity, says Yamamoto. Once the three year period is up, the U visa holders can apply for a green card, or permanent residence. It's possible that Rodríguez, in addition to her asylum claim, might be asked by state or federal prosecutors to testify in developing cases against her former employer, Agriprocessors Inc., and apply for a U visa separately.

Already, several Agriprocessors supervisors have been indicted or tried on charges relating to their hiring of undocumented immigrants, and top management of the meatpacker, including founder and owner Aaron Rubashkin and his son Sholom, former CEO, have also been charged by the Iowa Attorney General's office with over 9,000 counts of child labor violations.

One day, Gómez was on her way to sign a form agreeing to voluntary deportation when she received a call from assistants to lawyer Sonia Parras Konrad, informing her she might be able to attain a U visa, as a potential collaborator in a federal investigation into sexual harassment at Agriprocessors.

Gómez, who had worked at the plant packing chicken parts, took it as a kind of sign. "That was when I grabbed on to the idea of not wanting to leave, come what may," she says.

All told, says Parras, she's helping around 40 former Agriprocessors employees, including women with ankle bracelets and underage workers, to obtain U visas.

However, U visas also are still an unknown quantity, according to Yamamoto. Created in 2000, the guidelines governing their issuance was so long delayed immigration advocates filed suit in a federal court in 2007 to open the bottleneck. Meanwhile, applicants could only expect to receive interim work permits and protection from deportation as the bureaucracy stalled on gelling the policy. Regulations were finally approved late last year, but it's still unclear how flexible the government will be in awarding U visas, which according to the law also can be applied for by victims' relatives.

Veronica Cumez, a 32-year-old Guatemalan wearing an ankle bracelet, hopes to obtain a U visa as the longtime guardian of her nephew, 17-year-old Gerardo Soroví, who was an underage worker at Agriprocessors (underage workers, over 20 of them, also were released the day of the raid). However, she was forced to make a decision that would be heart-rending for any mother. Her 14-year-old daughter Silvia Cumez decided she couldn't bear to remain amidst the debris of their former lives in Postville any longer, and wanted to return to Guatemala, where her two younger siblings live. Cumez initially resisted, but had to relent when Silvia insisted.

One cloudy afternoon, Cumez stood in her driveway and watched a hired green van drive away with her daughter in it, bound for the Chicago airport five hours away, and a direct flight to Guatemala City. The last words she said to her daughter were, "Take good care of yourself ... let God be with you." After the sound of the tires on the loose gravel faded, Cumez stood and stared at the empty driveway a few minutes longer, the back of her hand covering her mouth.

If granted a U visa, Cumez has decided she will remain in the United States to work and send money to her children in Guatemala, so that they might live better.

Despite the undeniable roller-coaster quality of their lives, with ups and downs dictated by advances and setbacks in their cases, the women fighting deportation agree the challenges they've faced has made them stronger people-- more apt to stand up for their rights, more resourceful and thicker-skinned.

"I've become more independent, and I've developed more self-esteem," says Rodríguez.

Rodríguez and Gómez have enrolled in twice-weekly English classes and weekly classes in Spanish that count toward a high school degree. In addition to teaching them useful skills, the classes are welcome distractions.

"When we're in class I feel my troubles grow lighter," says Gómez.

Gómez also has joined with a few other women to create a jewelry-making cooperative selling bracelets, earrings and necklaces fashioned from colorful stones. The money will go to pay for the women's living expenses. Unable to work, they've depended on Postville churches and donations for food, rent and bills. Each piece of jewelry is accompanied with a scroll explaining the color's meaning.

The pieces with green stones symbolize hope, and the ones with black stones symbolize May 12, the day of the raid, "when everything turned black, and our dreams faded," says Gómez.

One morning, while blending tomatoes for a lunch of tamales, Gómez recounts her particular set of troubles. Though her husband wasn't arrested, and his wages shoulder some of their expenses, she's diabetic, and insulin injections add considerably to her household costs. Also, in addition to her two sons, aged nine and 14, Gómez is looking after her 16-year-old nephew, the son of her sister-in-law, a single mother who was so distraught and fearful during the raid she did not inform authorities she had a son and so was not released with an ankle bracelet.

Like most women, Gómez is living each day as if it may be one of her last in this country.

She's already arranged with her husband that if she's deported, she'll take the children and he'll remain in the United States to work and send money to her and her extended family, which already is struggling in Guatemala without her remittances. She'll take the battered suitcase her husband uses in his rovings around the Midwest for jobs. That way, she says, "I'll only have to buy one suitcase for the trip."

Marcelo Ballvé is a contributing editor at New America Media.

Related Articles:

Hispanic Caucus to Investigate Postville Trials

Interpreting the Largest ICE Raid in U.S. History: A Personal Account

The Children of Iowa ICE Raids

Raw Nerves Remain After New ICE Arrest in Iowa

After Iowa Raid, Families in Limbo

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User Comments

ari on Oct 29, 2008 at 11:16:59 said:

In reading these comments, I find it fascinating that none of these women, nor those in the Postville raids are treated as victims. Although many of them paid to come to the U.S., because they were illegal immigrants they worked in horrid situations without any responsibilty held to the employers. Massive human rights violations occurred, and as this article highlights, sexual abuse and harassment. Just because a person is not a US citizen does not mean they are denied basic rights. One of the issues with immigration is that only a certain number of individuals can come from other countries, and, for the most part, these individuals (who are granted legal temporary citizenship) are well educated people coming to work in a highly speciliazed field. Agriprocessors made wages at their factory in Postville so low that people in the town could not work there. If they did they would have been making a mere $13,000/year, which is well below the poverty line and would have not be sufficient in the slightest to support their families. Thus, Agriprocesors was able to get H2B visas for workers from abroad, many of whom never went to Postville, and whose jobs ended up being taken by most of the Guatemalans who were found in the raid. Why are US ethics not being looked at here? Why are we so apt to point the finger at illegal immigrants? When our country holds all the playing cards at the World Bank and in the NAFTA agreement, is there really any concern for development in the nations these people came from? Maybe the reason these people aren\'t trying to change their government is because they are so poor that their biggest concern is working 14-16 hour days to get food on the table for their families. Maybe it\'s because their governments are so corrupt that petitioning their government would be utterly pointless. While we all, including myself, sit on our laptops, inputting political opinions of the bourgeousie, we lose sight of what really matters. WE ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS. While it is important to look at legal precedent in this case in determining whether or not these women should be deported or granted temporary visas, they should be treated just like you or me. WITH RESPECT.

deb on Oct 21, 2008 at 13:48:58 said:

I\'m sick of illegals who think they are above the law and the U.S. should make special accomodations for them and their multiple kids. This is not the American way. The illegals knowingly put themselves in this situation and refuse to take any personal responsibility. Nice role models for your children. If the families are broken up, it is due to the decision of the parents. Americans need to let our representatives know we are fed up and expect our govt. to enforce our immigration laws and deport those who have no respect for American laws and ideals. Not one ounce of sympathy for these law breakers.

Just say NO MAS to illegal aliens on Oct 04, 2008 at 01:02:46 said:

All their troubles were self-imposed...they need to face the music and take personal responsiblity for once...reunite with their families voluntarily in their home countries and be grateful for the free public education, medical care and all the other social services granted by our government to these whining ingrates. Make demands on your own governments. Americans and LEGAL immigrants are suffering right now....the welcome mat is not here. Don\\\'t these women have any sense of dignity? Go home and be with your families and your kids in your own countries. Educate your children there...last I heard there are schools in Guatemala and MExico.

Ice Baby on Oct 03, 2008 at 18:21:35 said:

From my research of the U Visa, it does not seem the Postville 28 women qualify for it; well, at least the ones in the article.

\"Domestic violence\" must be proven with past police reports, which I\'m sure none of these women reported. In other words, there is no paper trail, a trail needed for proof in US courts. Judges can\'t just take their \"word\" for it.

In addition, \"domestic violence\" in the arena of the U Visa has to be part of \"criminal activity.\" I don\'t know how anyone can successfully argue being abused by a husband is part of a criminal activity. It\'s too much of a stretch. Just imagine this: If ANY \"domestic violence\" is accepted by the courts, then half of the world would be permitted to seek asylum in the US, including victims of terrorist countries. I don\'t think our judges are that stupid. The law has to apply to ALL; otherwise it becomes a mockery.

The most revealing \"scheme\" (or SCAM) to circumvent US Immigrations Law is this quote from one of the Postville 28 herself:

Rodríguez has three boys. While her youngest two are U.S. citizens, 13-year-old Alejandro was born in Mexico. She says more than anything else, it\'s concern for her eldest son\'s future that pushed her to fight to stay. \"The youngest two have citizenship, so they\'ll eventually be able to come and go as they please,\" she says, \"but Alejandro worries me, because he wants to keep studying.\"

Obviously, Rodriguez\'s motive has nothing to do with her ex-husband\'s alleged abuse, which is the basis of her application for a U Visa. Her motive is her son\'s future. She said so herself. Any first-year law student can see that Rodriguez is trying to twist the law to accomodate her personal needs. Uh-huh. I don\'t think so.

Well, these women\'s lawyers are PRO BONO. In the legal service field, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.

Ruth Peterson on Oct 02, 2008 at 14:54:28 said:

The Mexican government is laughing all the way to its Federal Reserve Bank. Mexico's solution to all of its economic woes is to send all of its citizens to the U.S., have them work and send money back home to fuel the economy. The Mexican government doesn't have to feed, clothe, provide health care, house or educate it's own citizens - that for the U.S. middle class to do.

It doesn't matter whether Obama or McCain gets elected, the U.S. middle class is fed up with taking care of 11 million Mexicans/other illegals. Remember, we have the vote and our voices will be heard - or we will vote all of those fools out of office.

Ask your own govenment what is it doing with all of the money that you send back home? Why is your country so poor? Why no health care, housing, schools, - what the hell is Mexico doing with all that oil wealth? Don't you feel stupid that your own government is taking your money and selling you out? Why are you not doing anything about it except coming to the U.S.?

R. Peterson on Oct 02, 2008 at 14:45:22 said:

Just like Latin America, conditions in the U.S. are not ideal. We have expreme proverty, joblessness, lack of housing, poor education, etc. The difference between citizens of the U.S. and Latin America is that we fight our governments and throw out the corrupt politicians - we don't sneak across the border and demand that another country give us everything plus the kitchen sink.

NAFTA has affected the U.S. citizen worker as well. Where have all of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs gone - to Mexico and China. The working class U.S. citizen worker is just as strained and put upon as workers in Latin America but they have the added pressure of their employers firing them so that they can bring in illegal workers to take their jobs - again - if the job hasn't gone over to Mexico or China.

Like you, I have sympathy for my people - the U.S. citizen worker. I don't believe in amnesty (that's like catching you stealing from me, then allowing you to keep the stolen goods). I don't believe in a pathway to citizenship (you had a pathway to citizenship - it's called legal immigration). I believe in deporting all illegals no matter what country they came from. I don't believe that two illegal parents can make a legal U.S. citizen. I wish to hell that the Supreme Court would clarify that issue. I hope it comes up soon. Now that the U.S. economy is tanking, I hope to hell that more illegal immigrants are caught and sent back home.

If your abusive husband is still in the U.S. how is it dangerous for you to be sent back to Mexico? Boy, these people are nothing if not creative.

Remember, Mexico is only as bad as Mexicans allow it to be. Go home and make your own country better.

sad on Oct 01, 2008 at 22:02:43 said:

what i find most shameful is that those who criticize know nothing about what has driven my people from their land. do you really think they really want to be here and put up with the ignorance from the likes of you instead of being alongside their starving family back home?If we all took the time to learn about what role American companies , agreements such as NAFTA, the funding of oppressive puppet democracies and corrupt governments, as well as the war on drugs, have all played in driving these unfortunate human beings from their homelands all throughout Latin America, as well as other third world countries around the world, we would all be welcoming them with open arms and thanking them for being the backbone of American economy. they are given the idea that America is a land of opportunity for all human beings alike but little do they know that what awaits them is discrimination, minimum wage jobs that no one else would ever work, and minimal rights. and for those who don't know they pay just as much in tax money as any citizen, yet their treated as criminals.

Jennifer Escalante on Oct 01, 2008 at 17:06:11 said:

Yes, it must be wonderful to be a person who has travelled from another country to get a small slice of the American dream, i.e. a job below minimum wage with no breaks, no benefits and no security, only to be sent back to where you came from in handcuffs.

What's wrong is that these people have to come here illegally. If the immigration quotas from these third-world countries were more equitable and less rascist, then this would not need to be the case. Their services are wanted, that's why they have jobs. A solution is not to blame the victim, but to realize that there is a demand for cheap labor and they are a source of it -- perhaps the migrant worker programs of old would be a good solution. However, for those of you speaking from a position of social, economic, gender and ethnic "superiority," it's quite sad when you feel threatened or jealous or angry at people who have done you no harm (nor anyone else for that matter) and you are unable to see any value in people who help make this country run. It's unfortunate that you can only see things from your majority and privileged point of view and no one else's.

Ohboy on Sep 30, 2008 at 15:31:31 said:

Some people (mainly white people) in this country think they are immune to the kinds of pressures that force people to move. God forbid a catastrophic natural disaster or a grave economic downturn forced millions of American\'s to leave in search of a better life. I hope that when/if something that happens -- Canada, Mexico and the rest of the world don\'t treat us like some folks here want to treat these immigrants. F--k y\'all for the hate..

John Ronka on Sep 30, 2008 at 11:23:00 said:

Boohoo. Another illegal alien sob story.

We can no longer afford the goodies--social services, welfare thanks to the anchor babies, free healthcare, free education--that aliens rely on.

They need to go home.

Next we'll be hearing how it's "racist" that she doesn't have a mortgage.

lance on Sep 30, 2008 at 08:03:46 said:

Applying for a special visa to avoid being beaten by your ex-husband in Mexico, even though he is in the U.S.? If that flies in court we are good and truly lost. As to the U visa, that is a law enforcement tool to ensure that key prosecution witnesses don’t return to their home countries, not a dodge for illegal immigrants to avoid deportation- if the prosecution wishes to offer to sponsor a U visa it should be done on the basis of the merit of the potential testimony, not humanitarian grounds. Nothing else new here, came illegally and should be deported, if they don’t want to divide the family they should all return- and please do it before they have another anchor baby the tax payers will have to pay for.

Nezzie on Sep 30, 2008 at 06:08:40 said:

This is unfortunate. I am sure they have insulin in her country as she came to ours illegally in 2005. She dropped anchors thinking that would allow her to stay in our country. People, it is time to go, no asylum's no ammnesty, take your kids, your husband and yourself back to your own country. Now that you know what a better life looks like, go to your country and fight for it. Our own country is in great peril and you are a very large part of that, we are a forgiving and generous people, but we have had enough. This is unfortunate.




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