IOWA CITY — The deportation of an Iowa City pastor violates President Barack Obama’s commitment to remove “felons not families,” according to a national immigration attorney.
Max Villatoro, 41, of Iowa City was flown back to his native country of Honduras overnight Thursday after hundreds of supporters in Iowa and across the country spoke out against his removal of the husband, father and pastor.
The deportation stops any legal efforts by supporters and gives Villatoro no legal way to be with his wife and four children in the United States, said David Leopold, a Cleveland, Ohio, attorney.
“This is exactly what the president said he wasn’t going to do. He said ‘felons, not families’,” Leopold said. “Today, the president broke his promise.”
Villatoro was arrested March 3 as part of a national sweep of more than 2,000 unauthorized immigrants convicted of crimes.
He was convicted in 1999 of drunken driving and tampering with records. Since then, he’s gotten married, fathered four children, and become a Mennonite pastor with a Spanish-speaking congregation in Iowa City. More than 40,000 people nationwide have signed a petition trying to stop his deportation. Two hundred of those supporters, including Villatoro’s wife, Gloria, and their children, marched Tuesday evening in Iowa City.
Leopold, who has represented many unauthorized immigrants since 1990, said he’s never seen so much support for a client. He and other advocates hoped the groundswell would cause U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to take a second look at Villatoro’s case.
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“I’ve handled a lot of cases with people who have one foot on a plane and I’ve never seen an outpouring like this,” Leopold said. The fact that Villatoro was deported shows many other families are in danger, he said.
Leopold talked briefly by phone to Villatoro around 7:30 p.m. Thursday, he said. Gloria Villatoro spoke with her husband a couple of hours later, he said. Leopold received an email from ICE at 12:05 p.m. Friday confirming Villatoro had landed in Honduras.
“Once you’re out of the country, it’s pretty much over,” he said.
Villatoro, who has no support network in Honduras, may be a target of kidnapping by criminals seeking ransom, Leopold and other attorneys have said. “If something happens to Max in that dangerous place, Director Saldana is going to have to explain it to his four children,” Leopold said, referring to the leader of ICE.