Francisco Tojin, a 33-year-old man, on his time in the United States since the age of 18, May 9, 2019, one year after an ICE raid in Mount Pleasant.
Joseph Cress, Des Moines Register
MOUNT PLEASANT, Ia. — Five days without her husband had Ana Lopez fearing the worst.
Felipe Ramos was one of 32 immigrants without authorization to be in the United States who were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at an eastern Iowa precast concrete firm on May 9, 2018 — part of a larger Midwest sweep that included the arrest of dozens more in the days that followed.
“It was one of the worst feelings ever,” Lopez, a mother of three, said Thursday through an interpreter. She feared Ramos would be deported to his native Michoacán state in Mexico.
“Michoacán is one of those states that is very dangerous right now because La Familia Michoacána is a cartel that is pretty much running the state,” explained the interpreter, Victor Rodrigo. “There’s a lot of violence, a lot of kidnapping, a lot of killing.
“It’s not that they don’t want to be in Mexico, but it’s because of the violence … you never know when it’s going to be your turn.”
Ramos is still living with his family in Iowa while awaiting a hearing that could lead to deportation. That’s the situation for 24 of the 32 who were taken into custody in Mount Pleasant last year, advocates say. The other eight were deported.
But Ramos, 34, hasn’t been able to find another job because he does not have a work permit. Tammy Shull, chairwoman of the advocacy group Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors (Iowa WINS), said that at least three of the 24 men have received work permits.
In addition to immigration proceedings, at least five of the Midwest Precast Concrete workers were charged with federal crimes such as unlawful re-entry and fraud. Three pleaded guilty and were sentenced to time served. Another was released from jail and then deported to Guatemala before the charges were adjudicated, his lawyer wrote in a court document. The last has been released pending trial.
Shull said that at least three men who have been deported are fighting their criminal cases. Some of the deportees have not kept in contact with Iowa WINS.
The organization, affiliated with First Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, is working with these families to help pay bills and stay fed. Iowa WINS met with immigrant families on Thursday to talk about the effects of last year’s immigration bust.
Shull said the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project helped secure the release of 13 of the 24 men by requesting hearings that lowered bond costs from $10,000 to as low as $3,500. Some families borrowed money or took out loans to secure bonds, Shull said.
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“It’s hard for us to understand what happens next. I think it’s important that we talk with our legislators and make them aware of what’s going on in these communities that have been affected by ICE raids,” Shull said.
“To me, the real frustration is the whole work permit process. These families are required to stay here, but they aren’t given a work permit in any kind of a timely fashion, and that doesn’t make any sense.” Some of the men have been told they won’t have immigration hearings until next year.
A spokeswoman for ICE said Friday that she could not immediately provide more information about the men’s immigration proceedings.
Tammy Shull, of Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors, speaks about 2018 immigration raid and what she’s learned since, May 9, 2019, in Mt. Pleasant.
Joseph Cress, Des Moines Register
Forced to stay, unable to work
Shull said many of the men who are with their families have not been able to find new jobs.
Lopez, a legal resident in the U.S., said she applied two years ago on Ramos’ behalf for a work permit, but all she’s heard is that some news could come this summer.
Francisco Tojin of Guatemala is also waiting to work. He said he left his home country when he was 18 and came to the United States illegally so he could find a job and build a better future.
The 33-year-old said he’s done construction jobs since coming to the United States. But he hasn’t worked in nearly a year — even though he now has a work permit — because he also needs a Social Security ID, and that hasn’t arrived yet.
In the meantime, he’s reluctantly accepting money from Iowa WINS and church groups to keep food in his home and a roof over his four children’s heads.
In the United States, “You can find a job if you want to make money, if you’re not lazy, you can find work anywhere,” he said. “In my country, we don’t have work like in factories. It’s not as easy to find work. I’m not lazy. I can make money, I can pay for all my bills, everything.”
Raid leads to confusion, fear, hiding
Tolin was jailed for a month and 24 days last year.
“The jail was hard. And I’m thinking, ‘They took me to jail because I (don’t) have paper,'” he said referring to immigration documents. “Just for that? I don’t sell drugs, I don’t do nothing like that.”
Shull said many of the men arrested by ICE were trying to avoid violence back home.
“Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are suffering from some of the highest rates of violence in the world,” Shull said. “The violence is described as coming from ‘gang,’ but a more accurate description is organized crime. The local police are controlled by these people.
“There is no safety for these residents.”
Twenty-two of the 32 men arrested last year were from Guatemala, seven were from Mexico, two were from El Salvador and one was from Honduras. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras each are ranked in the top 20 in the world for the highest homicide rate, according to data from the United Nations.
Wondering what’s next
For many of the people — most of whom are parents to U.S.-born children — affected by the raid, protecting their kids is most important. Lopez said she’s not sure how she and her children would get along in Mexico if their father was deported.
“She said she doesn’t have anything in Mexico, they don’t have a place to live,” the interpreter said. “(Lopez’s three children) have a life here already. They haven’t been in Mexico that much so speaking the language would be a problem. … The only place they know as home is the U.S.”
Victor Rodrigo, the interpreter, was born in Texas, but grew up in and went to college in Mexico. The 37-year-old has been in Iowa “on and off” for about 14 years he said.
Rodrigo joined Iowa WINS to help bring attention to how difficult the immigration process can be for some people. He said many don’t possess the paperwork, time or money to wait on a list or seek asylum.
“People were detained and arrested because they didn’t have papers, not because they were drunk driven or killers or anything like that,” he said. “Most of them are looking for … stability, to have safety, just to work hard, to earn a living.
“They’re hard workers and it’s sad to see families torn apart because the system is so bad.”
Immigrant families said churches, advocacy groups and neighbors in Mount Pleasant have provided food and money to those missing income.
Iowa WINS will continue helping people navigate immigration court proceedings, while also trying to teach job skills and leadership development. Shull said the group will work with others to build a community garden and find ways to generate money for the families as they wait for work permits.
A mixture of fear and hope will continue to hang over people like Lopez and Tojin’s head.
“We were waiting for immigration hearings, and the fact is, a year later, we’re still waiting for immigration hearings,” Shull said.
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