POSTVILLE, Iowa (WOMENSENEWS)–Consuelo Vega, a mother of three, lived and worked in this small town surrounded by cornfields for 11 years.
Then in May 2008, she was arrested, jailed for five months and deported to Mexico following a massive, military-style immigration raid at a Kosher meat processing plant.
Vega’s three children remained behind in the care of her older daughter, San Lopez, who was 18 and worked part time at a local bakery while raising her infant son.
Overnight, after her mother’s deportation, Lopez’s responsibilities multiplied as she took charge of her 12-year-old brother Pedro Lopez and 8-year-old sister Samantha Lopez.
"How many nights I could not sleep wondering what we were going to do the next day," she said. "I had to act like nothing was wrong to help my sister and brother but I was also depressed."
A study by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, based in Washington, D.C., found that for every two immigrants apprehended, one child is left behind.
Potentially thousands of parents and children have been separated as a result of immigration enforcement activities and millions more may be at risk, the researchers said. Two-thirds of the children affected are U.S. citizens or legal residents.
Carl Rusnok, spokesperson for U.S. ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Central Region, said 62 of the nearly 400 arrested in the Postville raid were released on humanitarian grounds, mainly because they were the only caregivers for their children.
"ICE agents at that site and all sites take extraordinary measures to determine if any of those arrested are sole caregivers," Rusnok said.
At the time of her arrest, Vega worked 12-to-16 hour days, six days a week, butchering cattle at Agriprocessors Inc. She earned $6.25 an hour, less than Iowa’s hourly minimum wage of $7.25.
When U.S. immigration agents stormed the plant on May 12, 2008, arresting Vega and hundreds of other mostly Mexican and Guatemalan workers, Vega told them she had no children because she feared they would be imprisoned and deported too.
‘No One Would Listen’
Shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles and bused 90 miles to the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo for arraignment, Vega later tried to tell immigration officials that she had three children at home. No one would listen, her daughter said.
ICE’s Rusnok doubts that could have happened. "During Postville and all our operations we repeatedly ask …whether they have medical issues, sole caregiver issues or any other issues that might cause them to be released on humanitarian grounds," he said.
Lopez said that with no means of communicating with her family for weeks, her mother began an odyssey through a series of detention centers scattered from Leavenworth, Kan., to Tallahassee, Fla., before her deportation to Mexico five months later.
About 40 other mothers arrested during the raid on Agriprocessors had GPS-like devices strapped to their ankles so ICE agents could monitor their movements. The devices caused bruising but could not be removed. It took two hours a day to charge them from an electrical wall outlet.
Often the only breadwinner in the family, the detained mothers were not permitted to work or to leave the state.
"It is a horrible life we are living now," said Maria Ruiz, 33, who came to Postville from Guatemala 11 years ago. The single mother of a 6-year-old U.S.-born son earned $7.25 an hour working in the frigid meat packaging area at Agriprocessors.
Relying on Church Charity
Since her arrest, Ruiz and her son, along with many other detainees and their children, have relied on local Catholic and Lutheran churches to pay for their food, housing, medical and other expenses.
ICE’s Rusnok said the women had alternatives. Had they not contested their deportation, they would have been sent to their country of origin and not had to depend on charity. "It is something they chose to do themselves," he said.
The raid and enforced inactivity that followed resulted in emotional and other difficulties for many of the mothers, said Virginia Gibbs, a professor of Spanish at Luther College in nearby Decorah, who has volunteered as an interpreter.
Their symptoms include "extreme sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, frustration, nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks and physical ailments from stomach problems to intense headaches to hair loss," Gibbs said.
The raid also took a toll on the Postville school system, which without warning had to arrange for the care of hundreds of children whose mother or father or both had been arrested.
David Strudthoff, the superintendent of the 600-student Postville Community School District, said that in the hours following the raid a spontaneous volunteer network of school faculty, staff and Latino high school students reunited children from the same family inside the school and kept them there until a relative who was not in hiding or imprisoned came to claim them.
Search for Welcoming Families
At the end of the day, about 40 children remained in the school. Faculty and staff took the children to St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church, where hundreds of immigrant families took refuge. Then they and community volunteers began looking for relatives or neighbors to take the children in, Strudthoff said.
In the days following the raid, school officials went from house to house trying to assure families that it was safe to send their children back to school.
"ICE can say that was a successful raid because the community stepped up to the plate behind the scenes and covered for them with regard to the humanitarian issues that took place as a residual effect of the raid," said Strudthoff, who is now school superintendent in De Soto, Wisc. "Without the community stepping up and doing the humanitarian things, that raid would have been a complete, unadulterated disaster."
Rusnok said he did not know of any cases in Postville where children were left without someone to care for them.
"Sometimes following these operations, there are situations that are exaggerated," he said.
Nearly two years after the raid, a sense of normalcy has returned to the schools, said Ron Wahls, a guidance counselor at the Postville Elementary School. For the first year, about 40 children received regular counseling, he said.
"Every day was uncertain," Wahls said. "A lot of them wondered ‘when I go home will mom be there.’"
Susan Elan covered politics at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She is now working on a Master of Public Health degree at New York Medical College.
For more information:
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union commissioned a report on "ICE Misconduct and Violations of 4th Amendment Rights" at six plants they represent including the one in Postville.
Urban Institute Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children
Pew Hispanic Center Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America
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