Consuelo Vega Nava looks down at her shifting feet, saying it was difficult to go back to that time in 2008 when she made the decision to tell immigration authorities that she didn’t have any children.
The only reason she denied having three children is because she feared immigration would deport them, along with her, back to Mexico.
“I was sad ... had mixed emotions,” Vega Nava said in Spanish as her son, Pedro Arturo Lopez Vega, 18, interpreted for her. “I was happy they were going to be safe, but sad. I didn’t want to go ... to leave them.”
It has been five years, but she will never forget the day ICE raided Agriprocessors in Postville and arrested her, along with 389 others, on May 12, 2008. She repeatedly denied having children, as others broke down and admitted, but she thought she was protecting her son and two daughters.
Unfortunately, the denial led to her deportation because most of the female workers with children were allowed to stay in the country and wear electronic ankle monitors, instead of being held in jail.
Sent to prison
“I knew about being deported, but I never thought prison ... would happen,” Vega Nava said in her soft voice, shaking her head.
Vega Nava was one of the 389 others who were arrested for working illegally with false identification documents, sentenced to six months in prison and then deported.
Vega Nava spent most of her prison time at the Hardin County Jail in Eldora, but for two long weeks she and others arrested in the raid for non-violent offenses were housed at the medium-security Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.
“My cellmate was a murderer,” Vega Nava said in a more excited voice. “I was scared all the time. Others from our (immigration) group were there and we would shower together, take turns watching out for each other when we showered.”
She was eventually sent to another jail in Tallahassee, Fla., to complete her sentence before being deported, which was better because she was allowed to work outside and even attended church services and study groups at the jail.
“Back in Mexico, I was happy to be out of prison but sad because I wanted to go back someday with my family ... not alone and empty-handed,” Vega Nava said, tearing up.
While Vega Nava was denying motherhood, one of her co-workers, Rosa Zamora, was told by authorities to tell the truth — give her real name and admit she had two daughters, and nothing would happen. She was released with an electronic ankle monitor and allowed to stay in the country with daughters Merlin, 5, and Ilvana, 1. But her husband, Fermin Loyes, was arrested and deported back to Guatemala. They didn’t see him for nearly three years.
“The first few months, I felt desperate because I didn’t have a job, and I felt really alone,” said Zamora, a petite Guatemalan woman with diminutive features, who spoke through an interpreter. “What was I going to do, you know, for money and the girls’ clothes.”
Zamora grew sad at times talking about the raid and her husband, but she also smiled and laughed, especially when Ilvana, now 6, leaned against her and Merlin, 10, crouched behind her on a small sofa.
The separation was tough on them all. Merlin would cry at the dinner table and say she needed her father, which would make Zamora cry. They talked to him on the phone while he served his six months prison term in Iowa and Louisiana, but then he was deported and they didn’t see him until 2010.
“I didn’t think we were criminals,” Zamora said. “I think that way because we hadn’t killed anyone, we hadn’t done anything except carry papers that were bad.”
Zamora said if it hadn’t been for financial support and food from some kind people in Decorah and the church, she couldn’t have fed her children and kept a place to live.
Vega Nava said the same was true for her family. Some of her children’s teachers brought them food, and the community and church helped them.
Back in Postville
Both Zamora and Vega Nava are back working similar meatpacking jobs at Agri Star Meat and Poultry. They both took other odd jobs before the plant reopened, but they had to go back because their options are limited in Postville, and they needed a stable living to support their families.
Both women declined to talk in much detail about Agri Star, but agreed the working conditions and the environment are better today over the old plant.
Zamora said she isn’t afraid to speak up now if something is wrong because now she knows her rights. In 2010, Zamora received a U-Visa, which are granted to victims of violence, and it allowed her to bring home her husband from Guatemala, and he also can work in this country. Loyes works at a construction company in Postville.
Vega Nava was able to come back from Mexico and work because her family remained in this country. Her husband and son also have work visas.
Her son, Lopez Vega, a senior at Postville High School, started working at local grocery store this year. He admitted it was tough losing his mom at age 13 for a year, but he understands that it was for his protection.
Lopez Vega, still wearing his soccer clothing from practice, was smiling and happy last month as he talked about picking up his tux and planning to borrow a car for his first prom, but he became serious when he recalled the day of the raid.
“I remember it clearly. I was sitting in social studies class and we heard the helicopters flying over. My teacher said it might be the National Guard ... but we knew what was happening.”
Lopez Vega said he realizes the sacrifice his mother made and wants to make her proud. He plans on going to the University of Iowa to study political science.Vega Nava said her son’s opportunity for a better life is why she and her husband came to America. She never regrets what she went through for that dream.