Arrest of Iowa City pastor Max Villatoro spurs outrage, raises questions

Petition signatures on delivery
In support of Max Villatoro, advocates in Omaha deliver boxes of petition signatures to the office of Greg Jensen, ICE Assistant Field Office Director. — photo by Stan Harder

At 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 3, Max Villatoro, pastor of a local Mennonite Church and father of four, was taken from his home and detained in the Linn County Jail by Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. He now faces deportation to Honduras, the country he left behind 20 years ago.

Why now?

Villatoro is one of the 2,059 immigrants arrested during a five-day nationwide ICE sweep dubbed “Operation Cross Check.” According to a release by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the nationwide raids were meant to target “convicted criminal aliens.”

From the DHS Release:

“This national operation exemplifies ICE’s ongoing commitment to prioritizing convicted criminals and public safety threats for apprehension and removal,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “By taking these individuals off our streets and removing them from the country, we are making our communities safer for everyone.”

In 1998, Villatoro was convicted of “driving under the influence.” Villatoro later pleaded guilty in 1999 to “tampering with records” for purchasing a Social Security Number so that he could obtain a valid driver’s license.

His 17-year-old DUI charge may be what threatens to send Villatoro back to Honduras, given that the DHS release states that, “The vast majority of misdemeanor convictions were for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI). ICE considers DUI offenders, particularly repeat offenders, to be a significant public safety threat.”

The community responds

Since his detainment, there has been overwhelming support from community members like Pastor Karla Stoltzfus-Detweiler, who worked with Villatoros at the First Mennonite Church of Iowa City. She says the church put out a call last Saturday evening for letters from the community asking for Villatoro’s release, and by Monday morning they had received over 200. They also started a petition which has received over 20,000 signatures from people in all 50 States.

“I got to know Max when he and his wife Gloria were interested in starting a church in Iowa City, and they wanted to share space with us at Thursday night church,” Stoltzfus-Detweiler said. “He is just a very caring, humble, self-giving person. … Just in the last year he was helping out a homeless man that he met who was struggling with some addictions, and helping him get adequate food and shelter, and counseled him, and prayed with him. And he has helped with some important community initiatives.”

She said Villatoro recently headed up one such initiative to get local immigrants and their families signed up for library cards. Villatoro and his wife Gloria went door to door in their trailer court with applications for the cards as a way to break down barriers between immigrant communities and public services.

“[Immigrants can be] kind of afraid of public spaces like that,” Stoltzfus-Detweiler said. “That’s the kind of person he is. He cares for his neighbors, he cares for his community and he reaches out. Others of us see him as a great model of how to love your neighbor. Love god and love your neighbor. He embodies that.”

Stoltzfus-Detweiler says that the more than 200 letters, as well as the 20,000+ signature petition were hand-delivered Tuesday to Greg Jensen, the ICE Assistant Field Office Director in Omaha who is directly overseeing Villatoro’s case.

Stoltzfus-Detweiler says she has been told by the Villatoro family lawyer, Dan Vondra, that Jensen has the power to exercise prosecutorial discretion, release Villatoro and end the deportation process.

To support Max Villatoro, you can leave a message for ICE agent Greg Jensen by calling the Omaha Field Office at 402-536-4861.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

More information about making the call can be found at the Mennonite Central Committee website.