Family rebuilds after 2008 Postville Immigration raid - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Family rebuilds after 2008 Postville Immigration raid

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Fermin Loyes and his four-year-old daughter Ilvana enjoy each other's company Fermin Loyes and his four-year-old daughter Ilvana enjoy each other's company
POSTVILLE (KWWL) -

It's the story of a family torn apart and its uncertain future...

It has been three and a half years since the May 12, 2008 immigration raid at Agriprocessors in Postville.

Officials with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the kosher meat-packing plant and took into custody 389 immigrants who were illegally in the United States.

At the time, it was the largest immigration raid in one place in United States history.

Despite the passage of time, the Loyes family is still caught in the raid's ripple effect.

It's any good parents' wish to provide a better life for their children. For Rosa Zamora Santos and her husband Fermin Loyes, that meant leaving Guatemala and coming to the United States with their then-two-year-old daughter Merlin.

"Guatemala isn't as good as people say because Guatemala has a lot of poverty," Santos said in an interview with KWWL this month. "We didn't have the same opportunities to be able to go to school."

In the US, her children can and do go to school. Merlin, now nine years old, is in third grade at Postville's Cora B. Darling Elementary-Middle School. On a recent school day, she was learning how to use a thesaurus, which is no small task for a native Spanish-speaker.

Despite the fact that English is her second language, Merlin is doing well. However, principal Chad Wahls wonders how far students such as Merlin will get.

"If they weren't born here and they were brought here before that, they're going to go out and be part of the world and sort of victims of their parents' choice, but also sort of victims of our own society and government," he said.

Three years ago, Merlin and her parents were here illegally. Merlin's sister, four-year-old Ilvana, was born in the US and is therefore a citizen.

Santos and Loyes, however, worked at Agriprocessors, and federal officials took them in the immigration raid of 2008.

"My heart was broken when my dad left," Merlin told KWWL.

Santos was allowed to stay in Postville and care for the girls, but the Government deported Loyes to Guatemala.

"My dad was gone three years, and I kind of felt lonely," Merlin said.

"They were rough times because I missed my two daughters, my wife," Loyes said. "I didn't feel sure about anything. I felt really sad. I was really desperate to be with them."

His wife applied for and received a U Visa, which is granted to unauthorized immigrants who are witnesses or victims of criminal activity committed in the United States.

Santos was the victim of several crimes of violence, as well as financial crimes, at Agriprocessors, her attorney Sonia Parras said.

Dan Vondras, another immigration attorney, said, "a U Visa is a way for law enforcement to work with an immigrant who knows something about a crime.

In the Postville cases, he said, "some of the unfair labor practices that were committed may have constituted offenses that would've allowed the witnesses to those crimes to apply for a U Visa."

U Visa recipients may petition for their children and spouse to gain the same legal status, which is what Santos did for her husband and their daughter.

That how, in May of this year -- three years after the raid, Loyes returned to Postville and his wife and daughters.

"I started to cry from the happiness because I hadn't seen him from a long time," Merlin said.

"At the end of three years, happiness returned to my home because my husband came, and I saw my daughter Merlin smile when she saw her father," Santos said.

However, the journey to a stable future is far from over for this family. Loyes applied for his employment authorization document in July and is still waiting. Until then, he's not allowed to work.

"Being with my family, I feel good, but I feel bad for not being able to help pay the rent, the bills," he said, "and I feel bad because I can't give something to my daughters - buy them something like clothes, shoes or something they might need."

For now, Santos provides the family's sole income, working at Agri Star, the company that bought the Agriprocessors plant in 2009.

Loyes and Santos said the family lives on $1,400 per month. That's more than $400 per month below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four, as determined by the US Census Bureau.

Merlin said she wants to go to college.

"We talked with the lady from Cora [Darling Elementary-Middle School], but it costs a lot, and, for us, probably not," Santos said. "We won't be able to manage to save that money because here, the little bit you earn is for food, rent and to send back to our family in Guatemala so they can eat."

For the moment, Merlin and Ilvana have all their needs met.

"Now my family is, like, complete, and I feel happy," Merlin said.

It's unclear, however, whether the future contains the better life their parents intended.

Since the fall of 2008, the Federal Government has approved more than 25,000 U Visas.

Republican US Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) has taken a hard line on immigration and worries U Visas can be abused.

"When you have an administration, as this administration is and the previous administration has been, that is reluctant to enforce immigration laws, then the U Visas can be abused for the purposes of granting a de facto amnesty," he told KWWL in a phone interview Saturday from Des Moines.

King, however, said he supports and sees the good in U Visas if they are used for their intended purpose: to help law enforcement agencies solve crimes and get convictions.

As far as the unfortunate situation of children of unauthorized immigrants, King said, "When they say it's not the child's fault: well, it's not, but almost every child is either rewarded by or punished by the decision of their parents, and the parents made the decision for them. It wasn't the United States Government."

Santos' lawyer Sonia Parras, who, pro bono, took on more than 100 immigrants' cases in the aftermath of the Postville raid, said U Visas protect human rights. She said U Visas allow victims of crimes, especially women in domestic abuse or human trafficking situations, to come forward and seek protection.

She said of the approximate 100 immigrant clients she took on, about half of them received U Visas. Between applying for spouses and children to gain similar legal status, she said, her efforts have allowed approximately 150 immigrants to stay in the United States, as victims or witnesses of crimes.

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