WILLARD, Ohio – Six-year-old Elsiy Lara Lopez seems oblivious to the conversation about her father’s future while she plays with his iPhone.
But when he is asked if he is prepared to be deported to Mexico on July 18, she stiffens and cries, “No, no, daddy can’t go away.”
Hearing her plea, Jesus Lara Lopez looks away from the little girl on his lap. His eyes tear up and he struggles for words of comfort that do not come.
Barring a last minute reprieve, Lara Lopez will board a plane at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on July 18 for a one-way trip to Mexico City, leaving behind a wife and his four American citizen children.
Lara Lopez, 37, is invisible to most Americans. Like many undocumented workers, he lived under the radar, mostly working in fields picking fruits and vegetables, though today he works in a Pepperidge Farm food packaging plant. He may have packed the Pepperidge Farm goldfish in your cupboard.
He has no criminal record. With a valid work permit issued by the federal immigration officials several years ago, he has supported his family. He has paid taxes and never used public assistance for welfare, food stamps, housing or unemployment compensation.
Yet, Lara Lopez is among the tens of thousands of immigrants being swept up in President Donald Trump administration’s directive to immigration authorities to deport thousands of people in the United States illegally.
In the first 100 days of the administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested more than 41,000 individuals who are either known or suspected of being in the country illegally. This reflects an increase of 37.6 percent over the same period in 2016, according to ICE’s website.
In making his case for increased deportation efforts, Trump campaigned with the families of victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. He vowed to removed “bad hombres” from the country.
Yet, ICE these days is not limiting its deportation efforts to criminals. Anyone found to be in the country illegally is subject to removal.
According to ICE, “Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly has made it clear that ICE will no longer exempt any class of individuals from removal proceedings if they are found to be in the country illegally.”
“ICE agents and officers have been given clear direction to focus on threats to public safety and national security…but when we encounter others who are in the country unlawfully. We will execute our sworn duty and enforce the law,” the ICE website says.
Jesus Lara Lopez comes to America
Lara Lopez, unable to find a job where he lived in Chiapas, Mexico, he came to Florida to work picking vegetables in 2001.
Soon, he moved to Willard, 70 miles southwest of Cleveland in Huron County, where large farms frequently need migrant workers to plant and pick their crops.
For years, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE) did not seem to notice him, though ICE was always in his mind.
Then in 2008, he was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. He was cited for not having an Ohio driver’s license, which as an undocumented immigrant he could not get. The Huron County sheriff’s deputy reported his status to ICE. He was given an order of deportation in 2008, which he appealed to an immigration judge. He was allowed to stay and work.
In 2011 he lost the appeal, but was given permission to remain and work until if and when the deportation order was activated. Each year he checked in with immigration officials and had routinely been given an “order of supervision” with a work permit while his case was reviewed. He had expected to be able to remain, since his case was a low priority.
In March, Lara Lopez was told to report to the Brooklyn Heights ICE office. He was nervous. He had heard stories about people reporting for what they thought would be a routine appointment, and being told they were going to be deported. Some even advised Lopez not to go.
“All the other times I went there the people were quite considerate,” Lara Lopez recalled through translator Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform group.
“We waited a long time to see an agent,” he said. “When he came out, he seemed mad. I had given him my tax records, employment history and letters of support from people.
“He put a bracelet (ankle monitor) on me and told me to get ready for deportation. I asked why he put on the ankle bracelet? I was not a criminal. They didn’t answer.”
His lawyer, David Leopold of Cleveland, questioned the order.
“Since 2008, Jesus did everything ICE asked him to do. He showed up every time he was asked, and did whatever they wanted. He presented all his tax records since 2002, showing he has been a taxpayer, which is more than our president has done,” Leopold said.
“He held down jobs and raised a family. He never collected welfare, food stamps, unemployment compensation or housing assistance. He has never been in trouble with the law, he attends church and is the kind of person we want to live here.”
Khaalid Walls, spokesman for ICE, said the government sees things differently.
“He was ordered removed in 2011 by an immigration judge,” said Walls. “In an exercise in discretion, the agency has allowed him to remain free from custody to final(ize) his departure plans.”
Tramonte said that previously, it had looked like he was going to be able to work things out and stay. “After all, he worked hard and raised a family, isn’t that what America is about? But then, just as his goal was in sight, they yanked it away,” she said.
Lara Lopez had found a comfortable home in Willard, making friends among the people at the Church of God of Prophecy. The jobs he found got better. He met a woman and they married. Last year, they bought a house.
“Things are different now,” he said. “I’m sad, but I have to be strong for my family. My wife is frightened because without me she won’t be able to make the house payments on her job alone.”
“He said he can see his whole life — the life he’s wanted and worked so hard for — and it’s right there in front of him,” Tramonte said. “He was so close. Now they (ICE) are killing his dreams and he does not know what he can do.”
“And he wants to know why.” she said.
When called for comment on the case, ICE spokesman Walls responded only by saying deporting Lara Lopez was “consistent with enforcement priorities.”
Leopold called those priorities “a numbers game,” where the focus for enforcement shifts from concentrating on deporting criminals to deporting anyone in the country who lacks documentation.
“Officially, ICE wants to deport what Trump called ‘the bad hombres,’ people who have committed crimes like murder and drug dealing,” Leopold said. “But they are also deporting people like Jesus in huge numbers, people who have committed no crimes.”
ICE’s website doesn’t disagree, pointing out the rise in non-criminal arrests increased from approximately 4,200 in 2016 to more than 10,800 in 2017.
“Cases like this are an incredible waste of ICE resources that only make it harder for the agency to identify and remove dangerous criminals,” John Sandweg, the former acting director of ICE under the Obama administration, said in a news release he sent out after being contacted by America’s Voice. “The Administration’s focus on the low hanging fruit of the enforcement system only allows the bad guys to remain at large, weakening our public safety.”
Tramonte said so far 33,000 people have signed a petition asking ICE to allow Lara Lopez to remain in the United States. Some of the letters of support can be seen here. They plan to continue to ask people to sign the petition.
Josefina de Anda, who lives across the street from Lara Lopez, is one of those who supports him.
“We go to church together, he’s a good neighbor and a good guy,” she said. “He’s one of those people who is always ready to help out when he’s needed. He has done nothing wrong, I don’t think what’s happening to him is right.
“What’s going to happen to his four children when he’s sent away,” she asked. The children are Eric, 13; Edwin, 11, Anuar, 10, and six-year-old Elsiy.
“And that little girl, oh, she loves him so much. Everywhere he goes, she’s right beside him. This is going to be really hard on her if he is sent away.”
Leopold said he has reached out to Ohio congressmen and senators. “A call from the right politician could help,” he said. But none have taken up the request.
The offices of U.S. Representatives Bob Gibbs and Jim Jordan did not return calls for comment on this story.
Anny Sterling helps run the Church of God of Prophecy, which serves about 250 people from the Hispanic community in the Willard area. She said these days there is a shadow over them. She does not know how many people in her church are undocumented, but knows they exist. She does not ask.
She said in previous years, the number of migrants increases in the early spring through the fall as farmers hire workers to plant the crops, maintain the fields and harvest them.
“We would see all these apartments all over town being rented by people and families,” she said. “There would be life everywhere. Not so this year. The units are not being rented, people are afraid to come here.”
Thousands of workers are needed in the early spring to prepare the fields and plant radishes, lettuce, peppers and other early crops. Migrant workers have become such a part of daily life that the Willard economy is dependent on them, since local residents don’t want the jobs.
Willard City Manager Jim Ludban said that there are plenty of good jobs going unfilled in this city of 6,000.
“Just drive around and you’ll see help wanted signs everywhere,” he said.
The three local farms that employ so many migrants, have declined to comment on the current employment situation. The New York Times recently quoted them as saying they lost millions of dollars of crops that could not be harvested because of the lack of manpower.
Jon Keeling, the director of communications for the Ohio department of Jobs and Family Services, said the number of unemployed people in all of Huron County is very low.
“In May of this year, only 314 people filed for unemployment and 1,650 had continuing claims,” Keeling said. “In May of 2011, there were 549 initial claims filed and 4,040 people were getting continuing unemployment benefits. This indicates that a lot of people have gotten work.”
But while high employment numbers are good, it makes it more difficult to get people to work in the labor-intensive, difficult jobs of planting and harvesting crops – even though they pay up to $18 an hour, twice the state minimum wage
At first, Ludban was not particularly sympathetic to Lara Lopez’ situation.
“He came here illegally and he was caught, that’s the way it is,” he said. “But you could say that even though you don’t like how a person came here, there should be more avenues to citizenship for people like him. I hope this works out for him.”
Lara Lopez said he prays constantly for God to soften the hearts of the people at ICE.
“I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “I will return to my mother and two sisters in Chiapas, but there is less work there now then there was when I left years ago. My father died when I was a baby and I have been sending money home. How will I get a job that will allow me to support my mother and send money back here to support my family?”
Lara Lopez said he doesn’t resent the government for his situation. “I just don’t understand,” he said through Tramonte. “Where is their heart? Why do they want to take me away from my family? My family is everything to me, it’s all I have.”