This week, an Iowa mother testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As the offices of U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have both pointed out several times in the past, Michelle Root of Modale must forever live with the loss of her daughter Sarah, who was killed in January 2016. A man named Edwin Mejia, who illegally entered the country, was driving while drunk and collided with her. Mejia went on to post bond and was never apprehended again.
Root's mother advocated for what's known as Sarah's Law during this week's committee hearing. The law would require immigration officials to take custody of illegal immigrants charged with crimes that result in death or serious injury of another person. Both of Grassley and Ernst as well as U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra expressed their support for Sarah's Law earlier this year in response to executive orders President Biden issued to begin rolling back immigration policies put in place by his predecessor.
"The Obama/Biden Administration refused to take custody of Sarah's killer because it didn't consider him a priority, allowing him to disappear into the shadows," Grassley's statement said at the time. "Sadly, it appears the Biden Administration is now seeking a return to the failed and dangerous immigration policies of the Obama years."
I agree, Mejia should be tried, and I agree the loss of a young Iowan should not go unanswered in some form. However, to imply the Obama administration's handling of illegal immigration was overly lax is to overlook another case I know Sen. Grassley's office was made aware of — that of Max Villatoro.
This isn't the first time I've brought up Max's case, so I'll try to be brief.
Max too entered the United States illegally and was charged with a DUI and attempting to illegally obtain a drivers license in the late 90s. In early March of 2015, he was detained and ultimately deported to his native Honduras during a nationwide immigration enforcement operation under the Obama Administration. The five-day sweep became known as Cross Check, and officials captured more than 2,000 individuals in that time.
The situation seems simple on the surface, and I imagine that's how Immigration and Customs Enforcement saw it in those days, but as Max's community would go on to point out, it wasn't.
Max had served his sentences for the crimes he was charged with in the 90s — sans deportation. He lived in Iowa City, and by the time I met him, he was the pastor of Iglesia Torre Fuerte — Strong Tower Church for those who don't read Spanish — which happened to share a building with the church my family attended. Years before that, he had found a better way of life in the church and eventually became one of its co-pastors, though it didn't pay the bills. He not only worked in the church and provided support to those in the community, but he and his wife would go door to door in their neighborhood to help people sign up for library cards.
Still, ICE cited his charges from the late 90s as examples of "moral turpitude."
More than 20,000 signatures were gathered, petitioning for Max to be granted relief — that's several thousand more than the official population of Dickinson County. The community held rallies. They called ICE officials. Former U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack even introduced a bill in December of 2015 specifically aimed at allowing Max's return — one committee referred it to a subcommittee in January of 2016, and there the bill stayed. A year after Max's deportation, his friends and family travelled to Washington D.C. to meet with staffers with Sen. Grassley and Sen. Ernst. Not much changed. Last I heard, his wife left the U.S. to live with Max in Mexico — I don't know what happened to their children.
Those who knew Max made it clear throughout the process that the local pastor was a help to his community and not a hinderance. Max's actions didn't lead to anyone's death like Mejia's did. Max didn't try to run like Mejia did. Yet, immigration officials grabbed Max as he left for work March 3, 2015, almost a full year before Mejia got behind the wheel drunk and ultimately ended the life of Sarah Root. I, by no means, intend to minimize the pain that no doubt came with Sarah's death. On the contrary, I mean to point out how unjust deportation policies can be.
Our immigration system didn't deem one of these men a priority after the death of a young Iowan, and he was allowed to bond out legally before choosing to run in order to avoid answering for his crime. The same system deemed another man to be a priority after he had spent about 20 years in this country, and it rapidly deported him for decade-old crimes while his community told of how Iowans had benefitted because of him.
I would say ICE failed Iowa communities in both cases.
Yet our current lawmakers have so far only sought legislative change for one. I agree with them in that there are some misplaced priorities when it comes to deportations. But, if we're going to make changes in hopes of protecting families and communities, we must also ask a counterintuitive question. We must ask whether those who enter this country illegally can in fact be a boon to us all, regardless of how they arrived — and I believe Max's case has shown they can be.