Max Villatoro not ‘worst of the worst’

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Arrest of Iowa City pastor indicative of immigration enforcement woes

If actions taken by the federal government are of any consequence, we should all be feeling a little more safe this week.

As part of its ongoing “Operation Cross Check,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced the arrest of nearly 2,100 people with criminal records. The activity was part of a five-day nationwide initiative in which federal law enforcement agents targeted individuals with criminal records.

“These are the worst of the worst criminals,” said Sarah Saldana, director of ICE. “These are not people we want in our neighborhoods.”

ICE provided a list of four detained individuals as an example. A Jamaican living in Georgia was previously convicted on several charges including larceny and assault with a deadly weapon. A Polish citizen arrested in Connecticut was twice convicted of drug possession and resisting arrest. In Illinois, agents arrested a Finnish person who was previously convicted on pornography charges involving a child under the age of 13. And, a person from Mexico who is a documented member of criminal street gang was arrested in Colorado after a previous conviction for possession of a weapon.

Friends and family of Iowa City Pastor Max Villatoro delivered boxes of signatures to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Omaha, Neb. in hope the 41-year-old Honduras native will be considered for relief and not deported from the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Stan Harder)
Friends and family of Iowa City Pastor Max Villatoro delivered boxes of signatures to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Omaha, Neb. in hope the 41-year-old Honduras native will be considered for relief and not deported from the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Stan Harder)

Most readers, I think, will agree these are not the types of folks we desire as neighbors. Unfortunately, the list of examples and tough rhetoric by government officials tells only part of the story.

Also arrested as a part of this initiative was a 41-year-old Mennonite pastor who had begun a Spanish-speaking congregation in Iowa City, Iglesia Menonita Torre Fuerte (First Mennonite Church). Max Villatoro, a native of Honduras and married father of four known locally as “Pastor Max,” was convicted of an aggravated misdemeanor in 1999 when he was arrested for drunk driving and had used fraudulent documents to obtain a driver’s license. He completed two years of probation and paid about $400 in court costs and fees.

Friends reported Villatoro has been in the country for more than 20 years and, outside of the 1999 problems, has served as a role model and community leader. They, along with his family, delivered signed petitions to ICE officials in Nebraska, arguing that Villatoro should not be a deportation priority and should qualify for relief under the guidelines of President Barack Obama’s November 2014 directives.

“… The President’s actions focus on the deportation of people who threaten national security and public safety. He has directed immigration enforcement to place anyone suspected of terrorism, violent criminals, gang members and recent border crossers at the top of the deportation priority list. …”

Villatoro won’t be the only person swept up in this most recent round of arrests that will attach hope to that passage. According to ICE, only about half of those arrested as illegal immigrants or lawful resident noncitizens had previous felony convictions, but all will face possible deportation.

The situation is a direct result of the push-pull immigration approach undertaken by the Obama Administration in the absence of Congressional action. Despite record-breaking deportation numbers throughout the Obama tenure, opponents have accused the administration as being soft on immigration enforcement, especially within the interior of the county. Focusing on the removal of convicted criminals and public safety threats in all 50 states has been the “middle-ground” response favored by the administration.

Yet, a 2014 investigation by the New York Times showed that about two-thirds of the nearly 2 million deportation cases have been people, like Max Villatoro, who committed minor infractions or had no criminal record at all. About 20 percent were people convicted of serious crimes.

It has taken our nation more than two decades to understand that while mandatory minimum sentences create fantastic campaign fodder, they produce ineffective justice. Allowing judicial discretion provides a better approach that meets the standard of the 8th Amendment that punishment maintain some proportion to the committed crime. Further, disproportionate criminal sentencing has worsened under a system that places a larger share of discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who can determine sentences based on the charge selected and the deals provided.

Likewise, the rhetoric surrounding the nation’s immigration woes has produced fiery stump speeches, but very little effective policy. Cracking down on “the worst of the worst” makes a great sound bite, so long as it isn’t followed up with a comprehensive picture of who is being labeled.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 14, 2015. Photo credit: Stan Harder