Pastor Max Villatoro supporters keep home fires burning

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First anniversary of deportation is only days away

Many things have been taken away from a deported Iowa City pastor during the past year, but he still has his friends.

Max Villatoro, a Mennonite pastor, was forced onto a plane March 20, 2015, and flown to Honduras. It was the first time in more than 20 years that he had set foot in the country where he was born.

Left behind were his wife and their four children, the Iowa City religious congregation the couple had established and a host of loyal friends.

“Max was a friend to many people and a minister of the gospel. His absence weakens his community, his family and his church,” said Roger Farmer of Washington, a member of the group aptly named Friends of Pastor Max. “I want to do whatever I can to help him return, and also to protect others in similar situations.”

The simple sentiment is indicative of the scarlet thread of truth woven throughout a year of advocacy that shows no sign of slowing. It was the Friends of Pastor Max, for example, that spearheaded and delivered a nationally circulated petition to Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials requesting prosecutorial discretion on the 17-year-old drunk driving case that put Villatoro on the government’s radar.

The group "Friends of Pastor Max" began developing in the lead-up of Max Villatoro's deportation to Honduras on March 20, 2015. They've remained active since that time, advocating for Pastor Max's return the Iowa City congregation he founded as well as helping to care for the wife and four children Villatoro was forced to leave behind.
The group “Friends of Pastor Max” began developing in the lead-up of Max Villatoro’s deportation to Honduras on March 20, 2015. They’ve remained active since that time, advocating for Pastor Max’s return the Iowa City congregation he founded as well as helping to care for the wife and four children Villatoro was forced to leave behind. (Contributed photo)

A seemingly never-ending, albeit yet unsuccessful, stream of petitions, letters, rallies, prayer vigils and phone calls have followed. And the Friends of Pastor Max ‘s self-imposed obligation to the cause hasn’t stopped there.

“My conscience will not allow me to keep quiet about immigrants being separated from their families,” said David Sickles of West Branch. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a country where I did not feel I was welcome. I, at least in my small part, can show that there are U.S. citizens that do want them here.

“I want families to be together, mothers and fathers with their children. I understand why immigrants want to come to the U.S. for a better life, not wanting their children to live in poverty and fear.”

To that end, the group has established a fund on behalf of Villatoro’s wife, Gloria, and their four children, all of whom remain in Iowa City. A like-minded Toledo coffee house owner has donated profits from an Honduran blend to the fund.

They’ve also worked alongside advocacy groups to keep Villatoro’s plight a part of the ongoing national conversation about immigration, even as headlines specific to the case have faded.

Keeping the public’s attention is important, said David Leopold, an Ohio immigration lawyer, because what’s happened to Villatoro highlights ongoing problems within a system that was supposedly redirected by the Obama administration in 2014 to include local discretion.

“If Max Villatoro does not qualify as an exemption to enforcement priorities, who does?” Leopold has asked, noting that the pastor’s nearly two-decade clean slate should be weighed against his earlier transgressions if the White House is being honest about its desire to keep families together.

Villatoro, 42, entered the United States in 1995. He had a 1999 DUI conviction in Johnson County, as well as a conviction in Muscatine County for using a fake name while trying to obtain state identification. He served a suspended sentence, and had no further run-ins with the law.

Attorney Dan Vondra of Iowa City said shortly after Villatoro was arrested that federal authorities had granted Villatoro a work permit about 10 years earlier, which was valid at the time of his arrest.

Villatoro was arrested during Operation Cross Check, an initiative the government touted as a round up the “worst of the worst.” News releases following the event — which nabbed more than 2,000 — boasted of the rapists, murderers and other violent offenders who were taken into custody. Government officials haven’t explained how non-violent offenders such as Villatoro fit into its stated goal, or provided detailed breakdowns of those arrested and deported.

Knowing that the Villatoro family is one of likely thousands dealing with similar fates weighs heavily on the Friends of Pastor Max.

“Being involved with advocacy efforts for Pastor Max has allowed me to learn more about the injustices that happen daily to immigrants who are valuable residents of the U.S.,” Edie Nebel of Washington said.

Shana Boshart of Wellman agrees: “I hope my advocacy of Max is a Christian witness that God’s will for human well-being has been disrupted, not just for the Villatoros but for thousands of others in similar situations. I have hope that God will work through our efforts.”

Having a group of non-relatives attempt to keep an immigration case alive and in the public’s consciousness for a full year is a rare accomplishment. That the group, led and staffed only by volunteers, has found a level of success is nearly a miracle.

Still, making an overtly angry nation in this political climate check it’s ugly, furrowed-brow in the mirror may just require an act of God.

The Friends tell me they are prepared for and committed to the wait and, in the interim, will continue to pray.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 6, 2016.