Max Villatoro closer to deportation

An Iowa City pastor swept up in a federal initiative to arrest and expel migrant criminals from the country has been relocated to a detention facility in Louisiana, and is likely to be placed on plane later today and sent back to his birth country of Honduras.

Max Villatoro, 41, was arrested by Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents on March 3. He and his wife, Gloria, founded Iglesia Torre Fuerte (First Mennonite Church) in Iowa City about five years ago. But, after entering the country illegally in 1995, the man known locally as Pastor Max had two skirmishes with the law — a drunk driving charge and aggravated misdemeanor related to the use of false documents to obtain a driver’s license in 1999. Villatoro completed probation and paid fines related to the charges.

Although friends say the father of four has been a role model for the community in the wake of past discretions, the previous charges were enough for Villatoro to be included in a five-day immigration initiative known as Operation Cross Check. The initiative, according to federal government officials, is intended to ferret out “the worst of the worst” migrants who pose security or safety risks.

Supporters of Villatoro have argued that the pastor does not meet the November 2014 guidelines provided by President Barack Obama, and should be granted deportation relief. A petition garnering more than 40,000 signatures and arguing for relief was presented to ICE officials. Residents have gathered in Iowa City and neighboring communities to demonstrate on Villatoro’s behalf. And a host of individuals and small groups have posted videos on the Internet in a direct appeal to President Barack Obama.

Following my previous column on the possible deportation of Villatoro, feedback has been varied. Some have argued that his initial crime — entering the country illegally — is enough to warrant his immediate return to Honduras. A very small sliver of respondents made this point with blunt, hurtful language.

The vast majority of the feedback, however, has come from people, like me, who question the timing of his impending deportation. If his transgressions were so intolerable, enough to place him on a list of wanted criminals by the federal government, how is it possible that he was able to stay in the country for so long? Why wasn’t the situation resolved years ago?

The questions are hardly partisan in nature, since the issues surrounding Villatoro’s entry and misdemeanor crimes took place parallel to two very different White House administrations — both of which, it is worth noting, paid at least lip service to their compassion for the plight of the nation’s immigrant populations.

There should be consequences for those who break the law. Yet a steadfast American value has been fairness in punishment. We believe that punishment should not only fit the crime, but also fit the specific circumstances surrounding the individual crime.

The pending deportation of Villatoro makes a mockery of those values. It purposefully ignores the innate unfairness of the existing system, as well as decades of law-abiding living. It provides no comfort to a wife or to four children. It places violent crimes like rape and murder at the same level as document fraud.

Just because rounding up people like Villatoro makes good political sound bites doesn’t mean it makes good public policy.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 16, 2015.