This Town Has a Plan to Protect Kids From ICE

By: - June 11, 2018 12:00 am

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — After Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers descended on the Midwest Precast Concrete facility on the outskirts of this small, quiet town in eastern Iowa, news of the dramatic May 9 raid quickly spread to the community’s schools. Some students in the high school left class without a word, hurrying to track down their family members. Some teachers quietly cried to themselves, knowing a handful of their students would be without their fathers that night. Some parents picked their kids up from school early, fearing immigration enforcement might next come for the students.

But Gabriella, a thin 12-year-old with dark brown hair and black-rimmed glasses who until recently only worried about her next clarinet performance, found out about the raid in a text from her mom on the bus ride home: “Immigration took dad away.”

When government vans carrying the 32 men left town to detention centers spread across the region, it showed how unprepared the community of Mount Pleasant was for a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As the Trump administration picks up the pace of workplace raids nationwide, other communities will have the same experience that Mount Pleasant did. No one knows, however, which workplace will be hit next, which schools might have to prepare their teachers and students, which families will soon have to explain a parent’s disappearance to fearful children and scramble to pay their bills after its breadwinner is taken away. Our country is vast, and immigrant communities dot every state.

A raid could happen anytime, Gabriella’s parents, who came to the U.S. illegally from Guatemala, had told her. But as the school bus passed rows of cottage-style, white homes and expansive lawns that Wednesday afternoon, Gabriella thought it might have been a joke.

It wasn’t until she opened the door to an empty home that reality sank in: She would have to care for her three younger siblings until her mom returned from meeting immigration attorneys in Des Moines. There would be no celebration for her youngest brother’s fourth birthday that evening.

That night she cried herself to sleep and dreamed her dad would be home when she woke up. A month later, he is still detained.

Gabriella hasn’t been eating; she spends most of the time in her room with the door closed, said her mother, Alba. (She asked that her family’s name not be used because of their immigration status.)

Gabriella’s dad had promised he was going to take her and her siblings out more on the weekends this summer. “He just likes to make us laugh and make us happy,” Gabriella said, before staring at her feet. “It was wrong for them to take all of those men because they have families.”

The raid caught Mount Pleasant by surprise; the people and institutions most affected were not prepared to deal with the fallout. But a few people suspected this day might come. They formed a group, Iowa Welcomes its Immigrant Neighbors. They even held an emergency response training session just weeks earlier.

The town of 8,600 residents “is like Norman Rockwell stuff,” said Trey Hegar, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, a house of worship across the street from the green fairgrounds that host the annual Midwest Old Threshers, a celebration of antique steam-powered farming equipment.

But in a town where 8 percent of residents are Latino, many of whom lack papers to live legally in the United States, the idea that ICE would raid a local business wasn’t totally farfetched to his congregation. A decade earlier, immigration officials detained nearly 400 workers at a meatpacking plant in Postville, an Iowa town of 2,000 residents to the north of Mount Pleasant.

Now, since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, ICE has arrested more than 4,000 in Iowa and four neighboring states, with dozens of children being separated from their parents, according to the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee Iowa, which tracks the actions. Many in the religious community thought more raids could target towns like Mount Pleasant.

Officially, the town of Mount Pleasant never had a response plan. But in the past year, Hegar and the school district designated the church as a safe space for families to reunite with their children after a raid. The church has held this role for decades in the case of a natural disaster.

On the morning of May 9, the school district immediately called the First Presbyterian Church. Soon, the church was ready to receive families with snacks and bilingual volunteers. It was “providential,” Hegar said, that the church would be ready for the raid, but the lack of communication from federal and local law enforcement upset the gray-bearded, energetic pastor.

“I got pissed,” Hegar said, leaning back in his office chair, surrounded by walls with hundreds of books and an honorable-discharge certificate from his four years in the Marine Corps. “The next day, it really hit. ICE came in, raided our community, yanked families apart. These are not the worst of the worst. These are families that play soccer and lift up Iowa family values. These are good, good fun-loving people.”

Around 90 children didn’t return to school the next today, Hegar said, out of fear. When pupils did return, the emotional support they needed wasn’t there, he said. John Henriksen, the superintendent for Mount Pleasant Community Schools, said the district didn’t do any specific things to address the raid at schools.

“Routines are important in a time like this,” he said. “We kept our school day our school day. We’ll lock arms with the Presbyterian church and let them take the lead.”

Estrella Macias didn’t go back to her second-grade class for a couple days after ICE arrested her father, Ricardo.

“How am I going to be happy without my dad?” asked the 8-year-old, playing with Pokémon stickers on her My Little Pony T-shirt.

She’s been distracted in school since, said her aunt, Julieta, whose husband was also detained that day but was released a week later on bond. “I feel so bad because my husband came back, but my niece says, ‘When will my dad come back?’” said Julieta. Estrella, speaking in her last week of school, said she used to be excited about summer break. But then the raid happened.

“We were going to go on vacation, but I told my mom that I don’t want to go anywhere without my dad,” she said, a hole in her smile where a baby tooth recently fell out. “I want to wait until my dad comes home.”

Her dad has already been deported before, and the family doesn’t know when or if he’ll be able to come home.

Though sympathy for the immigrants’ plight — especially the children they left behind — is widespread in Mount Pleasant, some residents supported the raid.

Mount Pleasant native Garrett Carlston, a 21-year-old petty officer in the Navy, said that while he feels bad for the children, the families should have known this was bound to happen.

“It’s no secret that Mount Pleasant had quite a bit of illegal immigrants,” Carlston said. “The townspeople didn’t really care. But with them coming to the country illegally, they made that choice and it was only a matter of time something was done. It’s a shame, but it’s their own fault.”

Learning From Previous Raids

The putrid smell outside the pork processing plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, is overwhelming, but Maria Gonzalez ignores it and stares intently at the massive gray building emitting an emphatic hum, remembering the day 12 years ago when she rushed to the plant and saw immigration agents load her mother and nearly a hundred other workers into buses and away to an uncertain fate.

“When we got there, there were a lot of other families there,” recalled Gonzalez, 29, now a bilingual teacher, looking around the JBS Swift & Company facility, this central Iowa town’s largest employer. “It was mostly kids. We couldn’t believe it. Everybody was in tears. Every time a bus pulled up, we’d stand on our tippy toes to see if we could see our parent.”

Her aunt had warned her that she could get deported too if she went to the plant. Gonzalez was 17 at the time, and had been in the United States since she was 3 when she was brought here illegally from Mexico. But she didn’t care. She wanted to see her mom. She had just rounded up her younger siblings from the town’s schools and brought them home after hearing rumors that ICE agents would be detaining children.

“It caught us all off guard,” Gonzalez said, her shaky voice barely audible outside the deafening plant. “You know what your status is. You know that potentially any day you can be deported, but you don’t think it’s ever going to happen.”

Eren Sanchez, then a senior in high school, went to the plant with Gonzalez that morning. Sanchez now wears her green card around her neck because she says she’s still scared of immigration agents.

In the past several months, there have been two other large-scale workplace raids across the country, like that 2006 raid in Marshalltown. Last week, ICE arrested 114 gardeners and landscapers in Ohio. In April, ICE arrested 97 workers at a meatpacking plant in Tennessee.

After the raid in Tennessee, which left 160 children without a parent and 500 children out of school the next day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was “not shedding tears” about the raids. The Trump administration has also enforced a policy of separating children from parents at the border.

Marshalltown, a city of 27,000, 28 percent of whom are Latino, learned from the last raid and doesn’t want to relive the chaos of 12 years ago.

Karina Hernandez, whose mother was working at the meatpacking plant during the raid, worked as a tutor for English-language learners at Rogers Elementary School in 2006.

“We were getting calls from parents working at the plant, ‘My kids are there, I’m going to get detained,’” she said. “Or high schoolers saying, ‘I have a sibling there. My mom is being detained. We don’t know what to do.’ We didn’t have a plan as a community. We didn’t know what would happen to these kids who were left behind.”

Like First Presbyterian in Mount Pleasant, a Marshalltown house of worship, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, stepped in to feed and house the children separated from families after the raid there. Now, as a school board member for a district of 5,400 students, 70 percent of whom are children of color, Hernandez is a leader crafting a plan to prepare for ICE’s return.

After the presidential election, there was angst in the community about what it meant for the small town’s immigrant population, said Lisa Stevenson, the director of instruction for the Marshalltown Community School District. A group of people from the school district, public libraries, human services agencies and law enforcement started meeting monthly to create procedures to follow in case of another raid.

“We’ve had to move in education from worrying about fires and tornadoes to thinking about school shootings and immigration raids,” Stevenson said.

Now the school district has three official documents that outline the emergency response plan for a major employer crisis, procedures for reuniting students and families, and suggestions on caring for children during troubling times. In the event of a raid, any child left alone after 5 p.m. will be bused to the Marshalltown High School gym, where families can reunite and access support.

After the plan was created, the school district sent letters to parents reiterating their support for immigrant families and encouraging all families to update their emergency contact information. Still, some parents are hesitant to share private information, Stevenson said. That lack of trust also affects the relationship between the immigrant community and law enforcement.

On Center Street, around the corner from the county court house and Zamora Fresh Market, a Mexican grocery store with a taqueria inside, the town’s police station sits across the street from another Mexican restaurant. Inside, Mike Tupper, the town’s chief of police, said his job is to serve the entire community, regardless of immigration status.

“Right now, immigration enforcement is not part of my job, it’s just not,” the soft-voiced, burly officer said. “I’m concerned about something like that occurring here because I don’t think these raids serve a lot of purpose. And communities are usually left holding the bag and we have to somehow clean up the mess that’s left behind.”

People in Marshalltown say they feel prepared for ICE’s return. But the same cannot be said in other communities throughout the state. Still, towns from Ames to Dubuque have begun sharing plans for a potential immigration raid.

A Glimmer of Hope

On a recent sunny morning in Mount Pleasant, the Presbyterian church was buzzing with people meeting with volunteer social workers and loading up groceries from the food pantry.

Since the raid, and through donations, the church has been able to help families with money to pay for rent and bills — up to $500 a month, Hegar, the pastor, said. The church already has received $53,000, which is being spent quickly on legal fees.

It took two weeks for the church to track down all the families affected by the raid, but now Hegar keeps their names, the amount his church has given them, and where they are in the legal process on a spreadsheet. Seven men were due to be released from detention that day, making bail — which ranges from $3,000 to $10,000 — through the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, an Iowa City-based aid organization.

One member of Hegar’s congregation is a high schooler whose dad and brother were detained in the Mount Pleasant raid. He didn’t go to school for five days afterward. “I can’t do the work,” he would say to Hegar. “I don’t feel like it.”

But on this day, Luis was on his way to get his dad, Mario, who was being released on bond from a detention center in Eldora, Iowa. Hegar called him up from his cluttered office.

“I’m really, really happy,” he told Hegar over speakerphone.

“We’re really happy to be part of your life,” Hegar responded, rubbing his forehead. “I wish I could see your face when you see your dad.”

Luis and his father went to church the following Sunday. Luis’ brother is still being detained.

The small bit of assistance from the church has helped people such as Gabriella and Alba make it week-to-week while the breadwinner of the family is locked up.

Carrying three old Huggies diaper boxes, Gabriella and Alba went around the small, tan-bricked meeting room filled with pastas, condiments and toiletries, gathering enough for the five members of their family to survive this week. Alba said she would find work, but fears she may get detained like her partner of 12 years.

“If that happens, my kids will be alone,” she said in Spanish, through tears. “I’m very worried, but I have faith in God he’s going to get out. I hope that God touches the hearts of those that are so hard-hearted, so racist.”

While the church has received some negative phone calls about its efforts, Hegar said there’s been an outpouring of support. Even though Henry County, which encompasses Mount Pleasant, voted 62 percent for Trump in 2016, the raid hit the community hard.

As Tammy Shull, a local activist leading the relief effort, checked her email in the lobby later that afternoon, looking for any updates on the seven men who were due for release that day, a local resident on break from work — his office I.D. still around his neck — walked through the door and handed her an envelope filled with phone cards. It’s a small donation from another stranger touched by the raid.

“Just thought it would help them,” the man said, then left as quickly as he came in.

Soon after, Shull looked at her phone: All seven men had made bond and were heading home. Letting herself celebrate for a moment, she straightened up, knowing 10 others remained in detention, away from their families.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.