In his latest round of threats, President Donald Trump stoked fear in communities across the country earlier this month with talk of ramping up immigration raids nationwide.
“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” said Trump, June 17 on Twitter. “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”
The President backed off his initial timeline in a tweet June 22, saying he would delay the mass deportations for two weeks, saying he wanted “to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border. If not, Deportations start!”
But for the small town of Mount Pleasant, even an empty threat makes waves. This Southeast Iowa community was left to pick up the pieces of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] raid that devastated 32 families and disrupted the community at large.
Julieta was one of many who had her life upended May 11, 2018 when ICE agents descended on Midwest Precast Concrete to round up the factory’s undocumented immigrants.
Her husband, who has lived in Mount Pleasant for 15 years, was one of the men detained that day. He’s home now with her and their two young children, but is unable to hold a job while his application for a work permit makes its way through the United States’ dysfunctional immigration system.
“My oldest [child] is scared because we don’t know what will happen one day on the street, or at home, or anywhere, you know? The fear is there,” said Julieta, who declined to provide her last name out of concern for her family’s safety.
Starting Line spoke with Julieta recently at First Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, where she volunteers at the food bank established to help families affected by the raid.
“For my part, I’m very happy to help stay here and support my community,” she said, describing herself as “very happy” and “really blessed.”
The food bank helps families collect food, clothing and hygiene products. For many impacted by the events of May 11, the church and its donations provide essential items as they try to make ends meet on a single salary, or none at all.
“We’re helping to meet some of the families’ needs,” said Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor at First Presbyterian Church and an active member of Iowa WINS (Iowa Welcomes Its Immigrant Neighbors). “Especially for a couple of the families where the husband was the only bread-winner and they have four kids, it’s keeping them above water, it really is.”
Assembled in 2015 in response to the war in Syria, Iowa WINS initially was formed in an effort to resettle Syrian refugees in Mount Pleasant. Upon finding out their community was a not eligible for Syrian resettlement, the group turned its focus toward immigrants already living in their community.
Because of Iowa WINS’ outreach to other community organizers and activist groups across the state, they knew who to contact when the immigration raid occurred. Since then, the group has been contacted by numerous churches and civic organizations, asking to learn how best to help immigrants in their own communities, and to be prepared in the event of a raid similar to the one in Mount Pleasant.
In talking with community leaders from Postville — an Iowa town that saw 400 of its immigrant residents detained in a 2008 ICE raid — Hegar said he gained perspective on the long road ahead, not only for the affected families but the entire community.
“The needs aren’t just immediate, they go on for years and years and years,” Hegar said, from his office at the church. “He [the mayor of Postville] said it’s a very long-term thing. Don’t just think about the next six weeks or the next year, think about the next 10 years, which really got us forward-thinking.”
Hegar and Iowa WINS have now partnered with other community leaders to expand their immigrant outreach beyond those affected by the raid, out to the larger population within their small town.
According to 2017 census data, Mount Pleasant is about 86% white in a town of less than 10,000. About 7% of residents are Hispanic and 4.4% are African-American.
A vehicle has been purchased to serve as a food truck, wherein a manager will operate the business and leftover proceeds will go toward helping local immigrants. Many of the families affected by the ICE raid have reserved gardening plots to start growing food for their families and the food truck. And, in partnership with First Community Credit Union, free classes on the English language, financial literacy and business planning will be offered.
“As a community credit union, we feel like it is our responsibility to give back to our community,” said David Suarez, community development manager for the credit union, which has a branch in Mount Pleasant. “We’re trying to be inclusive.”
During the Democratic presidential debates last week, candidates were asked how they would they handle the aftermath of Trump’s immigration policies, in which hundreds of children are currently languishing in detention centers near the southern border.
The two Texas natives on stage Tuesday night sparred with each other over how to deal with immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Julian Castro said he would repeal a section of U.S. law that criminalizes illegal border crossings.
Castro said he would “go back to the way used to treat this — when somebody comes across the border not to criminalize desperation. To treat that as a civil violation. And here is why it’s important … they use that law, Section 1325, to justify under the law separating little children from their families.”
When New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker jumped in, he made note of the fact family separation was not an issue occurring on the southern border alone.
“It happens in our communities,” said Booker. “ICE are ripping away parents from their American children, spouses and the like. And are creating fear in cities all across this country where parents are afraid to even drop their kids off at school or go to work.”
Back in Mount Pleasant, resident Bob Mueller invoked the Golden Rule when considering how Americans should respond to those who want to live in this country.
“Would you want this done to you?” he asked, while assisting at the church’s food pantry.
Mueller moved to Mount Pleasant from suburban Chicago a couple years ago, not long before the ICE raid struck town.
“I came out here to retire,” he said, noting his late partner’s family connection to the area. “I was working down at the Fellowship Cup to keep busy, and then we had the ICE raid. I didn’t even know about Iowa WINS at the time, but all the sudden this hit the streets and there was a vigil that night. So, I went over there and found out about what was going on and the next day I came in to donate some money and said, ‘What can I do?'”
In addition to volunteering at the food pantry, Mueller contacts state and federal officials to tell them about what happened in Mount Pleasant and how the nation’s immigration system needs to dramatically improve.
“This is really affecting the economy,” Mueller said, noting the increased number of empty storefronts downtown. “It’s starting to sink in really bad. If more people had embraced the [immigration] issue, we could be a lot farther along. When I moved here I think there might have been one or two vacant storefronts on the square … and now there’s probably, I’m guessing, five or six.”
In addition to local support, statewide organizations like LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens] and Catholic Charities were of critical help to the affected families.
And without the legal and monetary assistance of the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, many of the men could still be imprisoned.
With the help of two co-founders, Julia Zalenski and her team formed the nonprofit Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project in 2017 in the wake of Trump’s election.
“There was a group of concerned people in the community, largely people who have been working on these issues before, but also people seeing new impacts,” said Zalenski, an attorney with the public defender’s office in Iowa City. “Two of the three co-founders were working in the (Iowa City) school district and were seeing a lot of post-election ripple effects there. So, this group just kind of started meeting and talking about different ways we could be prepared to respond to raids — raids in particular were a big concern. But also, how we can help the immigrant community with preparedness and security and all of those issues.”
When the raid occurred in Mount Pleasant, Zalenski described the scene as “chaotic, because the need was so urgent quickly.”
Members of the team were dispatched to Mount Pleasant to help keep track of the detainees and how their bond would be paid.
Through its fundraising efforts, Zalenski said the organization paid bonds for about half of the detainees within a month or two of their arrest.
All of the bond eligible detainees had their bond set at $10,000, she said, “an amount that ICE certainly did not expect anyone to be able to pay. The idea was really to keep people in custody.”
A majority of the men arrested at the concrete factory have reunited with their families and are working their way through the immigration process in hopes of gaining the proper documentation to work and live here legally.
And in the meantime, families like Julieta’s adjust to the unknowns of living under an administration that flits from one threat to another, with no clear strategy to improve dire situations for citizens and non-citizens alike.
“When one of those situations happens [an ICE raid], you never feel comfortable anymore because we didn’t know when it would happen again, with the government we have right now,” Julieta said. “One day they say one thing, the next day change his mind. And then we try to do the correct things, but later he changes his mind again.”
On behalf of the “resilient” immigrants Hegar has met through his post-raid efforts, the pastor said one of the overarching goals of helping Mount Pleasant’s immigrant community was to create a greater acceptance between people of different races here.
“I get that it’s complicated and hard,” he said. “But there’s a humanitarian side to it, where you try to be graceful instead of just causing fear.”
by Elizabeth Meyer
Photo by Nikoel Hytrek