MT. PLEASANT — Wednesday morning’s immigration arrests of 32 men at a precast concrete manufacturer tore families apart, set volunteers scrambling to assist the jailed men and sent shock waves though the small community.
Federal and local law enforcement officials arrested the men on what they described as administration immigration violations. Federal authorities said the raid was part of an ongoing criminal investigation, but court papers that might more fully outline the nature of the inquiry had not been filed as of late Thursday.
The men taken into custody were loaded into vans and removed from the plant, MPC Enterprises, during the raid.
A person who answered the phone at the plant Thursday said a company official was not available to comment.
Amid the uncertainty, people gathered Wednesday and Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church to find answers, and advocates held a vigil Thursday at the Henry County Courthouse.
“We’ve talked about this day happening, hoping it never would,” said Dina Saunders, Mt. Pleasant chapter co-president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We hope everyone’s rights are respected,” adding that includes interpreters being provided for the men.
State Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mt. Pleasant, ventured to the church Wednesday evening to voice his concern.
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“It comes as a total shock. This is a peaceful community. People were working and out of the blue there were flashing lights and helicopters,” he said.
The 32 arrested men included one from Honduras, two from El Salvador, 22 from Guatemala and seven from Mexico, federal officials said.
They were being held, at least temporarily, at the Linn County Correctional Center in Cedar Rapids and at the Hardin County Detention Center in Eldora.
First Presbyterian Pastor Trey Hegar, along with Iowa Welcomes its Immigrant Neighbors, organized a community forum Thursday that included Mt. Pleasant police Chief Ron Archer — who Hegar said was the only law enforcement officer he asked who was willing to attend.
Archer was clear to say it was not a Mt. Pleasant Police Department investigation, though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did ask for local assistance.
“It was a criminal investigation,” Archer said. “If you’re here in this country and you use someone else’s identity to work, that’s a crime. That’s a forgery. That’s a felony.”
While Archer’s comments elicited some booing from the crowd, Hegar stood beside him.
“Some of these were just hardworking family people. Some are here illegally and there is a law with that,” Hegar said. “We do get stuck between two difficult places when laws are enforced by people that we live and work with and when hardworking families are torn apart because those laws have been enforced.”
After Mt. Pleasant school district Superintendent John Henriksen was alerted to Wednesday’s raid, he immediately reached out to First Presbyterian Church, which was designated as a safe place a few years ago specifically for situations such as this.
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Henriksen assured families that children 6 to 18 years old maintain the right to attend school regardless of immigration status. “School is a safe place for kids,” Henriksen said. “That’s what the law requires. As traumatic as an experience this is, that’s all we can do … provide a sense of normalcy.”
None of the 20 children in Mt. Pleasant schools affected by the raid were left needing a place to go after school, but their families worried about the near future.
“Right now, I do not have money for a lawyer,” a tearful young Hispanic wife said. “My husband, he was the one who provided.”
Volunteers sought to find cash, infant supplies, legal aid, transportation and counseling.
Erica Johnson, American Friends Service Committee immigration program director in Iowa, spoke at Thursday’s forum and explained the steps she’s taking to help.
“We’ve been spending the last 36 hours trying to locate people, meeting with family members and asking who’s missing. (It) really does create a sense of people disappearing from their communities,” Johnson said, adding that they have almost all the names of the detained men.