Stay, Hide or Leave? Hard Choices for Immigrants in the Heartland

HAMPTON, Iowa — It was quitting time. Edith Rivera took one last lunch order, dropped off a basket of tortilla chips and set off from work, heading out to the farm roads where other immigrants feared to drive.

Like them, Ms. Rivera, 33, had no legal status in the country where she had lived for 18 years. She had no driver’s license, apart from the long-expired North Carolina identification she held safe, like a talisman, in her wallet.

But as she skimmed past the northern Iowa cornfields on her way to her son Steven’s seventh-grade track meet, she did not share other immigrants’ fears. Not of being pulled over. Not of raids or deportation. Not of the man in the White House. Not of the new Franklin County sheriff’s quest to make sure this rapidly diversifying community of hog barns and egg farms would never again be known as an immigrant sanctuary.

Her American journey was waning, and she had little left to lose.

Her husband, Jesús Canseco-Rodriguez, was already gone — deported to Mexico in 2015. Ms. Rivera had jettisoned their apartment and sold off what the family had built here in Hampton: their small business power-washing hog barns, Mr. Canseco’s work truck, their furniture.

 

Now, at this tense juncture for immigrants and their adoptive hometowns across the conservative swaths of rural America, Ms. Rivera planned to sever one last tie. She was returning to Mexico — and to her husband — with Steven, 13 years old and American-born.

Some politicians call it “self-deportation.” She called it her family’s only hope of being together.

The heartland is freckled with Hamptons and Ediths. In small agricultural towns that supported President Trump by 20-point margins, residents are now seeing an immigration crackdown ripple through the families that have helped revive their downtown squares and transform their economies.
In Hampton, Latinos make up 51 percent of the elementary-school rosters and sit in the next pews over at the bilingual Easter Mass.

Like Ms. Rivera, many are weighing whether to stay, hide or leave altogether.

As she angled her gray Camry north, farms and silos whipping by under a sunny spring sky, Ms. Rivera scrolled through memories and fears as if they were pictures on her phone. The apartment by the golf course where she used to chase Steven through the grass. The curling prairie trails where they walked after school. The quiet blacktops where she went jogging.
“I love the days like today,” she said.

But the future scared her. She worried about her family’s safety in their home state of Veracruz, where gangs slaughter rivals and civilians alike. How would they earn a living on their tiny, remote ranch? How would Steven adjust to a country he had visited just once, last summer? Would she ever see her American friends — or America — again?

And when their departure date finally arrived, could she bring herself to get on that Delta flight and leave?

The most indelible American stories are often road trips of one kind or another, whether they end at Plymouth Rock or in Hampton, Iowa. Ms. Rivera’s first journey whisked her away from her poor home in southern Mexico when she was 14, across the Arizona border illegally, to join relatives looking for jobs in North Carolina. Another road trip brought her to Iowa with her husband and child, then a toddler.

In the decade the family spent in Hampton, they drove to Minneapolis, where her husband played first base in the Liga Latina de Béisbol, and where young Steven began, as one friend said, to “breathe baseball.” They drove to horse races and to a water park in Des Moines.
After Mr. Canseco’s arrest in 2015 on charges of illegally re-entering the country, there were trips to jail and to a federal courthouse.

Now, one final road trip waited: The drive from Hampton to a 5:45 a.m. flight out of Des Moines. The itinerary: Atlanta to Mexico City to Veracruz, and the start of an uncertain new life.

“I don’t know how we’re going to provide everything,” Ms. Rivera said. “It’s no work, no opportunities there.”

“I’m afraid at how she’s going to face all this,” Mr. Canseco said in a telephone interview from Mexico. “You can’t imagine how different it is.”

Some nights, as Steven fell asleep in the bedroom he and his mother shared, Ms. Rivera called her husband to talk about the home he was building for them on her family’s ranch in the village of Joachín, and the world of cows, sheep, lime trees and poverty that waited.

Hampton, population 4,400, rises from the rolling fields of northern Iowa, a courthouse clock tower and grain elevator forming its simple skyline.

It is a place where neighbors catch up at the Fareway market’s butcher counter; where the economy revolves around corn, hog confinements and egg farms, and where Latino immigrants do more and more of the work as the white population dies off or moves away.

 

The town tumbled into the nation’s immigration debate early this year when the newly elected county sheriff, Linn Larson, told the community he was ending policies that had added this tiny county to national lists of immigrant safe havens. Sheriff Larson said he would share arrest information with immigration officials and cooperate with them when asked.

“The only sanctuary I plan on offering is to the law-abiding people that want a safe place to raise their families and work,” he promised.

The county commissioners backed up the sheriff, and many residents said they liked his stance.

At the Hardee’s along Highway 3, where tables of machinists, farmers and retirees sip 99-cent coffees each morning and hash out the day’s news, many said they supported a harder line on immigration.

There was talk of signs in Mexico directing immigrants to Hampton. Some complained about Hampton’s being lumped in with liberal sanctuary cities like Seattle and New York.

If the sheriff reported undocumented immigrants who landed in his custody to the federal authorities, “It could make our county safer,” said Fran Foland, 69.
Others said they got along fine with their immigrant neighbors. They ate at the Mexican restaurant, La Amiguita, where Ms. Rivera worked, and admired immigrants who cleaned out reeking livestock pens for $10 to $15 an hour.

But why, they asked, couldn’t the immigrants learn English and come here legally, like their own German and Norwegian ancestors?

For many immigrants in town, it was a season of fear. Some papered over windows and front-door peepholes. Parents who dreaded being detained drew up contingency plans for what should be done with their children and cars.

Hundreds filled the high school gym to press the sheriff about his new approach. What would happen if they were pulled over? Would his deputies conduct immigration raids? Sheriff Larson tried to reassure people that his officers would not target immigrants.

Conversation by conversation, longtime Hampton residents struggled to reconcile their support for the president with the values they cherished: compassion, kindness and charity for their neighbors and friends.

Or in Steve Pearson’s case, for his namesake.

Mr. Pearson, 63, moved to Hampton 30 years ago because it was the biggest town in Iowa without a certified public accountant.

When he and a partner bought a building for their accounting firm, they rented rooms upstairs to Mexican families. Mr. Pearson called them “the amigos” and started carrying a Spanish-English dictionary. He helped them get loans and wire money home.

“The fact that we were renting to illegals, that bothered some people,” Mr. Pearson said. “My thought was, why not tell the politicians to change it? It’s in Exodus: Be kind to foreigners because you were foreigners once in the land of Egypt.”

One of the amigos stood out. He was a teenager from Veracruz who had arrived with his father and younger brother. His name was Jesús.

Jesús grew up, spent several years working in North Carolina, and returned to Hampton with a woman named Edith who had been attracted to his athleticism, work ethic and quiet humility. They had a son: Steven.

Steven, named for the mustachioed landlord who had treated the Canseco family so kindly.

Now living 2,000 miles away, Mr. Canseco still says that “the greatest man I know in the U.S.A.” is Mr. Pearson.

But times have changed.

And last year, Mr. Pearson, a conservative Republican, yearned for a change in the White House, despite his misgivings about the candidate promising it.

“There has been an illegal immigration problem for 30 years,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of The Mason City Globe Gazette. “The medical health insurance crisis has existed now for about 20 years. And the USA has been at war in the Middle East for 15 years. And there is no end in sight to these problems.

“So why not vote for Trump?”

Six months into Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Pearson said he still thought the country’s immigration system was broken. He was angered by the fate of the Canseco-Rivera family, though he noted that Mr. Canseco had been deported on President Barack Obama’s watch, not Mr. Trump’s.

Give people like them work permits, Mr. Pearson said. Give them residency. “I’m angered by the stupidity of it all,” he said. “Here’s 10 million people — ‘Let’s grab this one.’ It’s very sad.”

Ties That Bind

Lives are braided together in Hampton. After Mr. Canseco was arrested, the city’s police captain, a retired school principal and Mr. Pearson all wrote to the court on his behalf.

Another letter came from Megan Pearson Rosenberg, 37, Mr. Pearson’s daughter — who is also one of Ms. Rivera’s closest friends.

The two women met through their children when Steven Canseco was not yet school age.

Ms. Rosenberg’s son, Mickey, now 14, is a few months older than Steven, and her daughter, Lily, 9, shares Steven’s athletic, adventurous side. When they played, Lily and Steven would scramble and climb around the yard while Mickey sat in a tree reading.
For the grown-ups, the friendship was an easy fit. Ms. Rosenberg, a lawyer, did legal work for Mr. Canseco’s business. She accompanied Ms. Rivera to court to deal with a traffic ticket.

Ms. Rivera went with her husband and son to Ms. Rosenberg’s home for Thanksgiving, where Steven announced that he had never eaten turkey.

The Rosenbergs, in turn, experienced Mexican Christmases with their friends, eating until they could barely move. Ms. Rivera introduced them to her homemade green chile and cast a skeptical eye on the Rosenbergs’ version of Mexican cooking — Old El Paso tacos.

Steven showed up unannounced in the Rosenbergs’ backyard to play on the swing set. He and Mickey made pizza and watched baseball movies together. And Steven revealed a sly sense of humor.

He once told the Rosenbergs they were his white family. Another time, Ms. Rosenberg asked him if he followed politics. No, Megan, he deadpanned: I follow my dreams.

On July 22, 2015, Ms. Rosenberg got an urgent Facebook message from Ms. Rivera: Call me.

That morning, Mr. Canseco had been arrested by immigration agents at a gas station on Hampton’s west side as he, his father and an employee were heading to wash out a hog barn.

It was not Mr. Canseco’s first encounter with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He had been deported in 2005 after being caught using a false Social Security number to obtain work, but returned to his family a week later after another illegal border crossing.

That morning in 2015, Mr. Canseco said, the immigration agents told him, “We’ve got to take you.”

Ms. Rivera feared visiting her husband in jail because of her own immigration status.

Steven did visit his father, and felt proud for not crying in front of him.

Waking From a Dream

That September, Mr. Canseco pleaded guilty to one count of illegally re-entering the United States. He was back in Mexico when Ms. Rivera and Steven went to the Rosenbergs’ house for Thanksgiving dinner.

As he reconciled himself to staying in Mexico, Mr. Canseco had to recast his sense of national identity. He said he used to feel a surge of belonging when he heard “The Star Spangled Banner” before baseball games. “I felt myself as an American,” he said. “I was in a dream. Unfortunately, I’m not.”

United States law also viewed Mr. Canseco differently now: He wasn’t just an immigrant in the country illegally. He was a repeat offender.

He tried to return to Iowa even after his second deportation. He said he swam across the Rio Grande with a small group but turned back when immigration agents surrounded them. He then tried to cross the Arizona desert, where according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he was caught this April and immediately sent back to Mexico on an “expedited removal.”

To the family, it was becoming clear Mr. Canseco would never be able to rejoin them. So Ms. Rivera made up her mind to join him in Mexico. She decided to leave on July 21, a day before the second anniversary of his arrest.

‘I Have to Be Strong’

Iowa’s spring ripened to summer. Corn shot up. Volunteers repainted the 19th-century storefronts of Hampton’s recreated prairie downtown to ready them for the county fair. Ms. Rivera’s last American days were slipping by.

As she waited for Steven’s relay race at a track meet, Ms. Rivera agonized over money and time. She wanted to save up while she could, so she worked lunch shifts at La Amiguita, where she averaged $40 in tips, then drove 90 miles to Des Moines to work weekends at another restaurant.

But she felt torn. She wanted to spend more time with her friends in Hampton. And she found herself indulging her son with expensive sunglasses, sneakers and a baseball bat.

She just wanted things to feel normal.

“I don’t know if I’m doing right,” she said. “I have to be strong all the time and be positive. It’s so hard.”

Another warm evening, and the families were together at the Rosenbergs’ house, talking about the future of their friendship. Ms. Rivera, an artist with an eyeliner pencil, spends hours practicing her makeup skills. She wondered if she could find the same makeup in Mexico.
“Can you still send me my Chanel?” Ms. Rivera asked.

“You’re overestimating my abilities,” Ms. Rosenberg said.

The Rosenbergs have talked about visiting Veracruz one day, but are wary of the security conditions. The families have talked about whether Steven might come back to Iowa for high school, and maybe live with the Rosenbergs. Ms. Rivera hoped she could get a tourist visa and return from time to time.

It was getting late. Time to put the kids to bed. The women hugged.

“Bye, amiga,” Ms. Rivera said as she headed out the door.

“Bye, amiga,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “Love you.”

Another day closer to their departure, Steven cracked open the back of a white trailer. It held the last artifacts of their American lives. A microwave oven, boxes of clothes, golf clubs, Mr. Canseco’s tools, an artificial Christmas tree. “My dad wanted to have Christmas in Mexico,” Steven said.

After his father’s arrest, Steven cried nearly every night for months. But as his reunion with Mr. Canseco got closer, friends said Steven seemed excited. He savored his time with friends, confident that he would be able to return to the United States. It was like the lesson his father taught him about being lost.

“Whenever I’m in the woods, I try to break a stick and leave it hanging and make it really obvious,” he said one morning. “So if I were to get lost, I know I’ve been there already. I know where I’m at.”

His last days with his friends, his red Hampton-Dumont Bulldogs baseball cap: snapped twigs. When the county fair came to town in July, Steven roamed the midway with his friends, laughing and slurping vanilla ice cream.

As the Riveras and Rosenbergs took their last boat ride together on Clear Lake, Steven jumped and flipped onto a floating orange foam mat. “Look at how many birds there are!” he yelled out. His mother sat quietly on the back of the boat, trailing her feet in the water.
Her closest friends saw Ms. Rivera grow sadder and quieter as the July 21 flight approached.

“I don’t think about it, because I don’t want to go,” Ms. Rivera said. “I don’t know if this is right or not.”

She asked one of her best friends, Hortencia Saldivar: How many days do I have left? Don’t think about it, Ms. Saldivar replied.

One night, the women sank into Ms. Saldivar’s couch with a bottle of wine, and painted their toenails with purple glitter. It hit Ms. Saldivar that this was the last time they would do this.

“We’re so used to being each other’s support,” said Ms. Saldivar, 36. “Now I have to let go.”

Departures

It is quitting time.

The Des Moines International Airport is almost empty at 3:30 in the morning on July 21, save for two women and a 13-year-old boy, lugging overpacked suitcases through the departures terminal. Ms. Saldivar drove them here from Hampton, and is helping them check in.

Steven is keyed up. He plays with a fidget spinner, makes origami shapes out of a gum wrapper and worries about whether his baseball cap will give him hat hair before he sees his dad.

Ms. Rivera barely slept. She woke at 2:30 to do her makeup and now hurriedly transfers shoes and shampoo between suitcases to stay within the luggage-weight limits. “What am I going to take out?” she asks Ms. Saldivar in Spanish.

She straightens Steven’s watch and picks an invisible speck of lint from his red Hampton T-shirt as they wait. Only one aspect of her life feels good now, she says: that she’ll be with her family.

She and Ms. Saldivar embrace. They say “I love you,” and promise to see each other again.

“Algún día,” Ms. Rivera says. Someday.

A Delta agent asks for their passports.

“Do you have a return date?” she asks.

“One way,” Ms. Rivera says. “No return.”

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