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Immigration raids leave lasting toll on community health in Iowa

Immigration raids leave lasting toll on community health in Iowa

Picture of Christopher Walljasper

The last time a tornado touched down in Mount Pleasant, Iowa was 1977. But on May 10, 2018, an event took place that many have since compared to a natural disaster. It rocked much of the community, and continues to weigh on the mental and physical health of those impacted. 

But this was not a natural disaster. It was created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

On that Thursday in May, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, with the help of local law enforcement, raided MPC Enterprises, a precast concrete plant on the city’s west side. Thirty-two men, most from Guatemala, were detained. That one event has led to months of turmoil for the families of the men and the entire community.

In the days that followed, the men were detained in county jails across the Midwest — some as far away as Dodge County, Wisconsin, five hours away. Families and local supporters gathered at the First Presbyterian Church, unsure of who had been detained. They scrambled to find the 32 men, scraping together thousands of dollars in bail, often through high-interest loans, to avoid the deportation of their family’s primary income generator.

Mount Pleasant is a town with a long history of immigrants — from the Laotian and Vietnamese refugees who settled there in the 1970s to the more recent immigrants from Central America.

The raid and subsequent legal battles have left these men and their families in a prolonged state of fear and anxiety as they struggle to make ends meet, grope through a legal system full of contradictions, and seek to avoid local law enforcement, who eroded trust in the community by cooperating with federal immigration officers.

More than a year after that ICE raid, the physical and psychological impacts continue to take their toll on the men, who struggle to find legal work while mired in immigration negotiations. Some of the men who were detained won’t go before an immigration judge until 2020, meaning they can’t get work authorization for nearly two years after the initial raid. 

But more subtle are the effects of the raid on their families, who bear the social stigma of their now-public status, the fear for the safety of their loved ones and the possibility of losing the life they’ve built. Wives work long hours at low-wage jobs to make ends meet, and children perform worse in school.

Researchers from the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan have been studying the long-term health impacts of ICE raids on communities and have found that these events ripple throughout the community, beyond the families of detainees, and have long term health impacts.

The constant fear of leaving the house one day and losing a loved one to a murky legal system that could send them hundreds of miles away creates constant stress in the families of undocumented immigrants. That stress can lead to chronic health conditions, poor attendance and performance in school, lower birth weights and more preterm births.

ICE has drastically increased worksite raids in recent years, with 2,304 worksite-related detainments in the agency’s 2018 fiscal year, up from 311 the year before, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Two thirds of the detainments in 2018 were administrative, meaning the detainee had no criminal offense or prior deportation order. While worksite raids make up a small percentage of all ICE detainments, the way in which these raids are conducted, with helicopters and a large militaristic presence by both federal and local agents, means that the effects on the community can be far greater than individual arrests.

The potential for negative health impacts is not just isolated to those detained and their families. Under the Trump administration, ICE has threatened and conducted coordinated multi-state raids in the last few months. As word of these potential raids ripples through communities, the long-term stress can create negative health impacts for immigrant families across the country.

In the days and weeks after the raid, news coverage and community support focused a lot of attention on the families of the 32 men who were detained. But more than a year later, those families are still facing challenges. As a 2019 National Fellow, I will be working to better understand those challenges, and sharing some of their stories through a series of written articles and accompanying audio features.

In Mount Pleasant, the sound of sirens or the sight of a homeland security vehicle has sent immigrants into panic mode as they fear another raid. After that initial tornado of a raid last May, it’s as if every dark cloud in the sky makes these families fear another storm will hit their homes, destroying everything they’ve worked to build.

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