Photos by Misty Rebik
It may have been just another Iowa City arrest for some, but in the minds of several community members it was a call to the picket line. Toting young children and clutching homemade signs, protesters made their way to the Johnson County Jail on April 27 to demonstrate support for a formerly imprisoned mother of two.
Arrested along a stretch of Highway 6 the previous evening, Basilia Apolonio became the latest victim of what many activists are denouncing as a broken immigration system. Though she had committed no traffic violation and had no criminal record, the native Spanish speaker was booked on two outstanding warrants issued by the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) via the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The warrants were for fifth-degree fraudulent practice, and according to the Center for Worker Justice the alleged problems existed with the Social Security number appearing on Apolonio’s car title and registration.
The warrants seemed threatening to many, who wondered why ICE would target innocent mothers with no criminal record. “It is an unjust system and it needs to stop,” said Marcella Marquez of the Immigrant Voices Project, a group working to improve the lives of area immigrants. “My community is being harassed, and for what reason? We are all people and we all have the same rights.”
Many at the rally would agree. As the night wore on, prayers for immigration reform echoed down South Capitol Street, and candles flickered in the evening wind. Protesters pumped fists and thrust signs to the sky, hurling slogans directed at ICE.
Several years ago, ICE might have placed fear in the heart of a thriving Iowan immigrant community. But as the crowd continued to swell outside Johnson County Jail a mood of solidarity and very little trepidation was clear.
“In the past we hid. We locked our doors and were scared to go out on the street,” said one speaker unabashedly to the assemblage of protesters. “Now, we are united here to support our friend. It is a historic time.”
Hovering near the edge of the activity was Apolonio herself, the young mother whose arrest had so galvanized area residents. Hugging her small daughter to her chest, she slowly made her way to the front of the group.
Though her voice was quiet and her sentences were few, she communicated that she was grateful to be outside with her supporters, and emphasized the place where she currently stood—just feet from the jail—was far different from the cell she had vacated.
According to a statement on their website, ICE has “clear priorities” that call for a focus on the identification and removal of criminals, persons who have recently crossed the border and persons who are fugitives from immigration court. Apolonio was none of those.
She posed no threat to public safety, nor to homeland security. But Iowa City police followed through with her arrest, ostensibly—and unwittingly—helping to fulfill what seems an unspoken ICE agenda: to apprehend and detain any undocumented immigrant, regardless of criminal or terrorist involvement. While many advocate for the casting of such a wide net, others find it alarming, for more reasons than one.
Many feel that tax dollars and allocated funding is being improperly used in cases like Apolonio’s. “This is not what I want my county dollars going towards,” explained concerned Iowa City resident Diane Finnerty. “Those living here without papers have a powerful voice that needs to be heard, and we as voting citizens [can help facilitate that].”
Rally organizer Misty Rebik agreed, and pointed out that taxpayer dollars are being spent at every level to support ICE actions that victimize mothers of small children, and ultimately the populace. “The families targeted by ICE go to our churches and shop at our local businesses. If a federal agency is attacking one faction within our community it affects us all,” she said.
Citizens or not, one rally speaker emphatically noted that the members of her immigrant community had paid taxes and made contributions to America. She bemoaned that after 15 years of hard work in this country, her husband was now in jail and feared deportation.
Certainly, larger questions loom about the extent to which local law enforcement are aware of ICE’s agenda, and whether further collaborations could be on the horizon. Apolonio was the second person arrested in Johnson County under a warrant that was issued at the request of ICE. According to Immigration and Nationality Act §287(g), ICE is legally authorized to enter agreements with state enforcement so that local officers can execute ICE agendas, which can include investigation and detention. INA §287(g) further states that any local officer acting under an agreement with ICE must be aware of federal law, have undergone specific federal law enforcement training and act under federal supervision. While it is unclear how many more individuals might be facing situations similar to Apolonio’s here and across the state, it was evident to the crowd gathered to protest that cooperation between these local and federal enforcement agencies needed to end.
In Apolonio’s case, Iowa City Police confirmed there was no contact between arresting officers and the DOT who issued her warrants on request from ICE. While this might reassure some that local authorities are not conspiring with ICE and are in fact working within their legal jurisdiction, the Apolonio case points to ICE’s anti-immigrant agenda and suggests that until local police are made aware of the issues at hand and, arguably, the families at stake, immigrant arrests will continue.
At the protest, a few protesters swung signs high. “So you want a bigger jail to lock up immigrant moms?” read one, in reference to the hotly contested proposal for a new Justice Center building. Another simply asked, “Why?”
Amy Mattson is a freelance writer and University of Iowa alum who has previous experience as a copywriter, copy editor and online content manager. She currently works with victims of sexual abuse as a counselor and advocate.