IOWA CITY — Gloria Villatoro was in the shower, getting ready for the day, when immigration officers came to their house to whisk away her husband of 15 years.
“He asked the officers if he could come into the house and tell his wife what was going on,” Villatoro recalled. “They said no.”
Max Villatoro, 41, of Iowa City, has been living with the threat of deportation since 1999. That’s when the Honduras native pleaded guilty to tampering with records for buying a false ID to get a driver’s license, friends said. Since that time, Villatoro has married, fathered four children — now ages 7 to 15 — and become a Mennonite pastor starting a Spanish-speaking congregation in Iowa City. He works legally in construction.
“He made some bad decisions when he first got here,” said David Boshart of Wellman, who oversees 50 Mennonite congregations and served as Villatoro’s ordination mentor. But now “he’s respected. He has a job to support his family.”
Boshart was among other Eastern Iowans who drove to Omaha Tuesday to deliver a petition of more than 25,000 signatures to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, seeking Villatoro’s release. A group of 35 people met for a send-off early Tuesday at Iowa City’s First Mennonite Church, which houses Villatoro’s Iglesia Menonita Torre Fuerte.
“Over 2,000 people were picked up by ICE last week,” said Karla Stoltzfus Detweiler, another pastor at First Mennonite. “We remember all the families that were broken apart by our broken immigration system.”
Villatoro’s supporters say he is being housed at a detention facility in Eldora, pending deportation proceedings.
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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported Monday arrests of 2,059 convicted criminals in a five-day nationwide sweep ending March 5. More than 1,000 of the people arrested had been convicted of felonies, including involuntary manslaughter, child pornography, robbery, kidnapping and rape, the agency reported.
Villatoro’s crime is tampering with records, an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison. The charge stems from Villatoro buying false identification so he could get a driver’s license. Villatoro pleaded guilty to the charge Feb. 26, 1999, and was sentenced to two years probation. He paid his $395 in fines and court costs.
“That should have taken care of it,” Boshart said.
Max and Gloria Villatoro lived in Muscatine until 2009, when they moved their family to Iowa City to start a Spanish-speaking congregation. He worked legally in construction until his arrest last week, Boshart said. (Editor’s note: Boshart is a cousin of Gazette Des Moines Bureau Chief Rod Boshart.)
“Max is very humble, earnest leader,” Boshart said. “He’s been a strong advocate for the undocumented group in Iowa City.”
The couple’s children, Anthony, 15, Edna, 13, Angela, 10, and Aileen, 7, are all U.S. citizens. The girls have been praying every few hours for their father’s release, said Gloria Villatoro, a Mexico native living legally in the United States.
“How would you feel if your husband was taken away from you?” she said. “It hurts my kids, it hurts our family and it hurts the community.”