Maria, 17, remembers the day well. Her mother, also named Maria, was cooking and chatting with her eldest daughter about what to take to school the next day for a Cinco de Mayo party when she took a phone call from her uncle, who was having domestic issues with his wife. Her mom drove away from the house to help with the situation — something she’d been called to do many times before.
Later that night, the phone rang again. It was Maria’s mother, who had been pulled over and detained by law enforcement. She was charged with failing to have a valid license in Muscatine County, according to court records, but authorities soon learned she was an illegal immigrant.
Maria says her uncle’s wife had alerted authorities that her mother was undocumented, leading to her arrest and eventual deportation. She initially was taken to Muscatine, then in the coming days to Cedar Rapids, then out of state before being flown back to Guatemala.
Ten months later, 39-year-old Maria Cardoza is living with her father in Guatemala, and calls Iowa City twice a day to check on her six daughters. The younger Maria, a senior at Regina High School, is the oldest, helping her father, Vidal, care for Nilsa, 12; Mariana, 11; twins Siomara and Tania, 8; and Diana, 4.
“When she first got caught, it was really sad because it was a big change,” the younger Maria said Tuesday in their living room in a mobile home park outside of Iowa City. “She’s always been with us. It was harder because I had to take care of my sisters and do the things my dad couldn’t do. I go to school, then I come home and make food.”
Vidal is an illegal immigrant as well. His children all were born in the U.S. and are citizens, but Vidal is one of an estimated 75,000 unauthorized immigrants living in Iowa.
Vidal says he has been living in the U.S. since after his oldest daughter was born, crossing over from Mexico to join his wife in California for work. The family spent several years in Grand Rapids, Mich., before Maria brought her children to Iowa, where a family member lived, about 2½ years ago. Vidal joined the family a year ago, finding factory work for a couple of months but lost the job because because of citizenship status, his daughter said.
The family is living on $600 a month in Social Security payments for Siomara’s medical issues, as well as food stamps and charitable help through their church, St. Patrick Catholic Church in Iowa City. Four of the children receive scholarships and FAFSA help to attend Regina, said Maria, who drives her sisters to school each day. Siomara, who attends Lemme Elementary, is bused to school and goes the Children’s Center for Therapy twice weekly for help with her stomach issues.
The family is working with an immigration lawyer, and Vidal, 43, remains hopeful that one day the girls will be reunited with their mother. He considered moving the family back to Guatemala after his wife was deported but decided the U.S. offered a better future for his children.
“I’ve thought about it, but right now everything has changed a lot over there,” Vidal said in Spanish as Maria interpreted. “There’s a lot of crime, and it’s very dangerous over there. It’s a totally difficult lifestyle. I would like us to stay here.”
The Rev. Rudolph Juarez of St. Patrick Church, which offers Spanish Masses and works with those in the Hispanic community, said he admires Vidal’s perseverance.
“He’s had to be both mother and father to these girls, and that’s a tough situation for anybody to be in,” Juarez said. “And to be in a situation where the ordinary family ties and support are not always there, we’ve tried to be a spiritual family and community for them.”
Immigration has been a simmering topic on the local level in recent years. The Sanctuary City Committee, an Iowa City group that formed three years ago as an offshoot to the Consultation of Religious Communities, has pushed city officials to become the first in the state to offer protections to undocumented immigrants.
The Iowa City Council ultimately balked at a sanctuary city ordinance last year, citing potential complications with the federal Secure Communities program, which requires fingerprints collected at the local jails be routed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check against immigration databases.
The Sanctuary City Committee, which most recently met Thursday, continues to move forward despite the setback at the council level, committee member Sarah Swisher said.
“We have a consensus among the committee that the action of Iowa City Council was inadequate, that we need to protect immigrants in this community,” Swisher said. “It’s not our goal to protect undocumented immigrants from the federal government. It’s our goal to have the city to play no role in the enforcement of federal laws related to immigration.”
Juarez, who also is a committee member, said that although the group has yet to affect any policy or code changes with the city, it has succeeded in bringing immigration issues to the forefront locally. He said a new immigration roundtable group has formed, composed of those interested in issues such as labor, living conditions and police relations. The group also has begun an endeavor called the Immigrant Voices Project, which will provide a forum for those who might not have a means to make themselves heard.
“We want people who are immigrants in Iowa City to be able to come forward with some of their own stories, the experiences they’ve had and what the immigrant experience looks like,” Juarez said. “Sometimes we can get lost in what the leadership says immigrants want or need, but not be connected to the base.”
A 2011 report by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates the U.S.’s unauthorized immigrant population at 11.2 million.
Iowa’s estimated illegal immigrant population has grown dramatically over the past 20 years, according to the report. In 1990, the state had an estimated 5,000 of the nation’s 3.5 million illegal immigrants. That number rose to 25,000 in 2000, to 55,000 in 2005 and 75,000 in 2010.
The report also estimates that unauthorized immigrants make up 3.2 percent of Iowa’s labor force, with 55,000 working.
Maria and her sisters have a system down. Each girl gets two or three minutes on the phone with their mom before passing it off to the next; one call after school and once to say goodnight before bedtime. Maria guesses it costs about $5 a day for phone cards. It’s not exactly getting tucked into bed at night, but the calls keep their mother close.
“It’s been hard,” Maria said.
Making trips to the grocery store, cooking and driving her siblings to school and appointments — all reasons she took a driver’s education course last year — Maria has taken on the role of mother this past year. It’s much the same as her own father’s childhood, growing up poor and forced to work as a kid in Guatemala.
“He was the oldest and his dad was not a good influence,” Maria said. “He was basically like the dad of the house, and he suffered a lot, and he doesn’t want that for us.”
At the same time, she’s still a typical teen. Maria is on Regina’s yearbook staff, has made many friends in class, whom she describes as welcoming, and is excited to play soccer — her father’s favorite sport as a kid — this spring. She hopes to become a cosmetologist after high school and eventually go to school for nursing.
Vidal doesn’t worry about being deported because he stays out of trouble with the law, he says. Although he hopes to find steady work and to move the family into something larger than their cramped mobile home, he said he’s not angry with his situation.
“It’s not a frustration; it’s more a sadness that people are able to separate a family and kids because she never did anything bad or illegal besides being here,” Vidal said through his daughter.
Iowa City attorney Dan Vondra has been working on the elder Maria’s case, but he said it could be a lengthy battle before she can legally return to the U.S.
“People who get removed, sometimes it’s a process of two to three years to come back before they’re actually able to re-enter,” Vondra said.
Said Juarez: “One thing about our immigration system is it’s extremely complicated and extremely slow. So there’s no quick fixes when it comes to obtaining legal statuses.”
Until then, Vidal watches as his daughters paste pictures into their ever-growing scrapbook. The family hopes to save up enough money to one day send it to their mother.
“I’m staying positive,” Vidal said. “I believe God gave me a reason to be here, and even with this going on, I believe that someday this will all be resolved.”
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Reach Josh O’Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org or 887-5415