Mt Pleasant News

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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 22, 2018

15-year-old boy, alone in MP, waits to hear judge’s ruling on father’s immigration status

Neighbors in MP write letters of support for men arrested in immigration raid
Jun 18, 2018

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


Fifteen-year-old Walfred Uriza is still waiting to hear his father’s fate after a Davenport judge heard Elmer’s case a month after being arrested by immigration officials during a raid in Mt. Pleasant.

Elmer is one of 32 men arrested by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from MPC Enterprises in Mt. Pleasant on May 9. While 20 of the men have been released on bond and are awaiting their immigration trial, Elmer remains in the Linn County Jail until a judge rules whether he can stay in the U.S. or be deported back to his native country of Guatemala.

The men who have been released from the Linn County and Hardin County jails on $10,000 bond and do not have previous felony charges are waiting for a trial to determine their immigration status, said Trey Hegar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, the focal point for families caught up in the raid to receive help. Immigration trials can take 10 to 12 years to happen, Hegar said.

Elmer, however, is unable to be released on bond because of the criminal charges he faces as a second time offender. Elmer was ordered from the U.S. on Jan. 18, 2014 by an immigration official in Texas, according to court records. He was removed from the U.S. on Jan. 22, 2014. Deportation officer with ICE Jonathan Kovach found no application or permission from the Attorney General or Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to lawfully re-enter the U.S., the court documents stated.

At the time of publishing, a ruling had not been made on Elmer’s case.

Four other men are also being held in the Linn County Jail awaiting a judge’s verdict, while three of the men arrested have been deported.


Not Alone

Since Elmer was arrested, Walfred describes himself as an orphan, as his father, and only relative in the U.S., has been detained. While families in Mt. Pleasant continue to open their doors to house the teenager, the goodwill cannot replace his own father’s parenting.

Letters of support written to the judge hearing Elmer’s case give examples of Walfred’s strength in the midst of uncertainty as well as his palpable fear.

Hegar wrote in a letter dated June 5 that one family Walfred stayed with told Hegar how they could hear him crying at night.

“(Walfred) is a good, respectful young teenager. However, you can see in his eyes that he has seen too many awful things in this world already,” Hegar wrote.

At least four other letters, written by members of Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors (Iowa WINS) and Walfred’s teachers and coaches from the Mt. Pleasant Community School District (MPCSD), advocate for Elmer and Walfred to remain together in the U.S.

Hegar urged the judge to consider the importance of a child having a father figure in his life. “Since I have known (Walfred) I noticed how helpful he is with the children who have been coming to the church for gatherings since the raid,” Hegar wrote in his letter.

“It’s almost like he wants to make sure the little kids stay happy and safe,” he continued. “I imagine (Walfred) learned that from his dad who protected him from gangs and drug cartels by bringing him here and risking everything to get back to him a second time.”

Keeping true to his father’s wishes to continue studying and doing well in school despite his arrest, Mt. Pleasant Community High School teacher Ruth Sutherland wrote in a letter dated June 6 detailing that throughout Walfred’s “emotional roller coaster,” he was still inquisitive about English and eager to learn a new word every day.

“Elmer had to make tough decisions to make sure his son (Walfred) had the opportunity to learn English, as well as ensure that (Walfred’s) immersion into the community was full and productive,” Sutherland wrote.

Walfred’s physical science teacher this past year, Kathy Holtkamp, also wrote a letter to that effect, expressing how Walfred’s politeness, respect for other students and general care for others stems from a “positive home influence.”

Before he was arrested, Elmer had applied for asylum for Walfred. Walfred’s hearing is scheduled for August. The father and son could only afford to apply for one asylum application.


Struggling Students

Walfred isn’t the only student in Mt. Pleasant whose teachers are advocating for them. English Language Learner teacher at Van Allen Elementary Amanda Clark wrote advocating for her eight-year-old student Estrella Reza-Macias’ father Ricardo Sucedo-Marcias.

Ricardo is also being criminally charged for illegally re-entering the U.S. a second time. Ricardo was ordered to be removed from the U.S. on Jan. 11, 2008 by an immigration judge in Bloomington, Minn., according to court documents. He was removed on Jan. 23, 2008. Ricardo is a citizen of Mexico.

Clark, who has worked with Estrella since she was in kindergarten, said she chose to write a letter because it was something she felt strongly about. Watching her bubbly, outgoing student become fearful and quiet after her father’s arrest was more than Clark was willing to put up with.

“To me, family is important, and I’m watching my student go through losing a parent …” Clark said. “Myself, I don’t understand all the ins and outs of all that legal stuff, but I can’t imagine being an eight-year-old and dealing with it.”

Clark wrote in her letter dated May 23 that Estella was someone who always had a warm smile for everyone, but that has diminished since Ricardo was taken into custody.

“All she knows … (is) he is not with her and her family anymore,” Clark wrote. “Not having her dad with her has affected Estrella in so many ways. Not just in her personality, but in her academics as well … she is having a hard time focusing on her schoolwork.”

Even Iowa State Representative Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant) wrote on Estella’s behalf as well as one other student. Heaton said he knows personally the wives of the two men detailed who he wrote letters for and has been engaged with the fallout from the arrests since it happened.

“I think our community has come together, and they’re receiving a lot of support,” Heaton said, adding that he is frustrated with the situation. “The whole situation is at the winds of the Federal Government and ICE and that’s the way it is,” he said.


Support Kids Education

MPCHS Superintendent John Henriksen said in discussion with teachers regarding the letters of support, they felt it was appropriate to write the letters as school employees rather than private citizens. Henriksen said the letters were written based on the need to keep students in school so their education is not disrupted.

Henriksen added that however educators fell politically should be kept out of the letters. “We just need to do this as supporting the kids’ education,” he said.

Mt. Pleasant Middle School Language Learner teacher Dina Saunders agrees. This isn’t the first time she has written letters of support on behalf of her students and their families. During her 10-year stint in the Mt. Pleasant school district, parents have approached her countless times requesting letters of support to help them obtain taxpayer identification numbers or serve as a character reference.

Saunders looks at the students for guidance. Are they well-behaved? Do they come to school regularly? Are they well fed, well dressed and clean? she asks herself before each letter.

In answering these questions, Saunders can rest assured that the children are being taken care of by their parents. Although she has frequent contact with mothers, the fathers are often working and “contributing to their families,” she said, but through the care she sees the children receiving, she knows the fathers are present and active in their children’s lives.

Now, Saunders has been assigned to a family who has been affected by the arrests that took place at MPC Enterprises a month ago. Bilingual people like her are working with the families through Iowa WINS to ensure they have access to legal representation, that they have enough money to pay rent and utilities, and purchase food and other necessities.


The Human Element

One of the men Saunders is working with was already in the process of becoming a citizen when he was arrested. “This has put an extra burden on the family because he’s not working now and they need to come up with $2,000 (for lawyer fees),” Saunders said. “It’s a shame that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing and it set them back in time and caused emotional distress.”

While Saunders is proud of the people of Mt. Pleasant for rallying around these immigrant families, she hopes more people can see the faces behind the statistic of undocumented people.

“It’s one thing to see faceless people at the border, but once you work with them these are humans,” Saunders said. “What I’m finding is once people educate themselves on the immigration system and realize it’s not working, people are stepping up. Regardless of what people think of immigration, people are looking at the human element.”

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