Saturday, May 24, 2008

Family faces uphill battle to stay together after raid (Des Moines Register)

By NIGEL DUARA • and GRANT SCHULTE • • May 24, 2008

Postville, Ia. — There are many lives Yesenia Cordero and Henry Lopez-Lopez could have lived.

There's the one where the teenagers stay in school; she doesn't get pregnant and they both go to college.

There's another one, where they live together and become U.S. citizens and make a life in Iowa.

There were the lives they could have lived separately — she in Mexico and he in Guatemala.

But there's only one life that matters. It's the one where Lopez-Lopez, 18, faced federal Magistrate Paul Zoss at 2 p.m. Thursday while Cordero, 16, waited at their house for word of his sentence.

It's the life they're living now, and it might be the end of their story.

The agents descended quickly. They were everywhere at once, pointing and yelling in Spanish.

Lopez-Lopez found Cordero near the quality-control area. They saw an empty hallway and ran. They squeezed into a tight space behind a refrigerator and stacked hoses from the cleaning crews in front of them.

In the dark, they didn't speak. When agents passed by, Lopez-Lopez nudged Cordero with his elbow.

Three hours passed. Cordero was tired, so they crouched down, exposing their knees between the hoses.

An agent, gun lowered, spotted them.

The largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history netted 389 illegal immigrants May 12 at Postville's Agriprocessors Inc. plant. Cordero and Lopez-Lopez were two of them.

Cordero and the other women apprehended during the raid were put on a bus that stayed in Postville. A male agent asked Cordero a series of questions in Spanish. She told them about her 1-year-old daughter and her boyfriend, now detained. Agents fitted an electronic monitoring device around Cordero's ankle and she was released. Before she got off the bus, she saw Lopez-Lopez being herded onto another bus with other men. It was only the back of his head, but she recognized him.

He didn't see her. It might have been his last chance.

Lopez-Lopez shuffled out from behind a black curtain Thursday and into the makeshift courtroom. He scanned the audience. His shackles clinked. A U.S. marshal pointed him and nine others - all Guatemalan - to chairs near the back.

Zoss, the federal judge, stared down from his bench in the converted dance hall at the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo. Lopez-Lopez fidgeted and gazed forward, his fingers interlaced on his lap. Two federal agents sat cross-armed behind him.

Each of the 10 men faced the same sentence as part of their plea deal, Zoss explained through a translator. Five months in prison. No fines. And then immediate removal from the United States, with probation to be served in Guatemala.

Zoss went down the line, speaking slowly, addressing each man by name. Lopez-Lopez was last.

"Are you a citizen of the United States?" Zoss asked.


"Of what country are you a citizen?"


"Have you ever abused drugs or alcohol?"


Each immigrant — clad in blue government-issued sweatshirts, jeans and work boots — said they had used fake resident alien or Social Security numbers so they could work.

Zoss asked each man for a plea, one at a time. He reached Lopez-Lopez.

"How do you plea?"

Lopez-Lopez stared blankly ahead, hunched in his chair, and sighed. Then he nodded.


Cordero and Lopez-Lopez talked, once, about what would happen if they were caught. He didn't like to bring it up. Neither did she.

"I'll visit you in Guatemala," she told him. She didn't really believe it.

When Lopez-Lopez is deported, he'll be taken to Guatemala, Mexico's impoverished neighbor. She doubts he can make it into her home country, with the steep cost of crossing the border, Mexico's stringent immigration law and its widespread governmental corruption. She has accepted their fate.

Cordero came into the United States like many of the Postville detainees, as the cargo of a "coyote," or human smuggler.

Her hometown, El Arenal, literally translates to "the sandy place." It lies smack dab in the middle of Mexico, dusty and hot, where people scrape by on the corn, beans and peppers grown there.

Her mother, now also wearing an electronic monitor, wanted her children to grow up in America, to get an American education.
Her father and brother were already in Postville, and because they felt it was a safe place, they sent for Cordero and her mother.
Cordero was 12 when she left. She doesn't remember much from the trip to the border. It was fall 2003. They crossed into New Mexico, then drove north.
They stopped at Taco Bells along the way, five of them packed into a sedan.

She attended Postville schools. In ninth grade, she met a boy named Henry. He was in 10th grade, his looks "mas o menos" ("so-so"), but he excelled at math.

He was nervous to talk to her. In her culture - and his - you announce your intentions to date someone before you are seen with them in public, she said.

He asked her out on the phone. She agreed to a walk in the park.

Love progressed. Cordero found out she was pregnant in mid-2006, when she was 14. She dropped out of school over the objections of her teachers and moved in with Lopez-Lopez to a small, white house on a leafy lane they shared with Lopez-Lopez's family.
"I told them I would go back (to school)," she said. "I had plans to, but ..."

Before she dropped out, she had heard in school about the Agriprocessors plant. They didn't treat people well, she heard, and they yelled at workers and hit them when they underperformed.

She said her teachers told her that everyone at the plant was scared to complain about the conditions. Not long after she had her baby, she was working there.

The woman who hired her knew Cordero was underage, Cordero said. It was a simple matter: The woman altered her birthday from Oct. 25, 1991, to Oct. 25, 1989.

After three days of training, Cordero was checking water temperatures and operating a scale to weigh meat.

She was paid $8 an hour and said she liked her work.

Lopez-Lopez also worked in quality-control, but on the retail side making $9.25 an hour. They each worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. They'd drive to work together, his shift beginning an hour after hers. Lopez-Lopez's sister looked after the baby, Ada Mari.

When Cordero got off work, she'd go home, start dinner, then drive back to the plant and pick him up. She cooked; he did the laundry.

She uses one word to describe their life: "Feliz."


After the sentencing Thursday, federal marshals ushered the men back behind the curtain and through a back door. They crossed a parking lot, past a white bus with tinted windows and "U.S. Department of Homeland Security" emblazoned on its side. Clouds loomed overhead and there was a faint chill in the air.

A second judge greeted them in a gray, double-wide trailer. Prosecutors re-read the plea agreement. The white bus idled outside, waiting.

Judge Linda Reade once again explained the men's rights and asked if anyone wished to say anything.

None did. Reade wished each man luck, and approved their sentences.

A breeze swept past Lopez-Lopez as he stood outside the trailer, still handcuffed. He glanced around at the gray trailer, at the converted dance hall where most of his court hearings had taken place, at his fellow workers, at the looming bus.

A federal marshal tapped his shoulder. Time to go. Lopez-Lopez squinted, wet his lips, and disappeared into the bus.

There are many lives Cordero and Lopez-Lopez's daughter can live.

One-year-old Ada Mari Cordero-Lopez is a U.S. citizen and could legally stay in the country. Cordero isn't sure what she wants for Ada Mari, maybe to pursue medicine or law. She knows she doesn't want the girl to grow up and wait tables.

Ada Mari can stay in Mexico, in the arid village of about 50 houses where her mother and grandmother grew up. Her father's home, in tiny San Jose Calderas, Guatemala, isn't much different.

When she's old enough, she'll hear about the raid. She'll hear about her father, who was never very good at soccer but loved to play. She'll hear about the United States, about its promise and its possibility.

Cordero took the news of Lopez-Lopez's sentence calmly. She had already heard that most detainees took the same deal, and was ready for it.

Her sentence is almost certain. She'll be deported, and she'll take Ada Mari with her.For now, Cordero waits in the three-bedroom white house in Postville. The electronic monitor that keeps her from leaving Iowa makes her right foot go numb when she charges it.

Among Postville's immigrant community, fear is still the overwhelming sentiment.

There were 697 people named in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's original criminal complaint. To many, that means the government is still looking for at least 300 illegal immigrants.

Cordero said she doesn't want Ada Mari growing up scared.

"I want her to learn that everyone is equal," Cordero said. "Even if you're from another country, everyone is equal."

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