By Marcelo Ballvé

New America Media

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.

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.

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.


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