One morning on her way to school in Des Moines last month, 15-year-old Estela got a call from her mother. Her father had been arrested while going to work at a construction company.
“My dad was walking towards the office when the cars came in and told him to stop and pointed his guns at him.”
Estela’s father has a criminal conviction for re-entering the United States. Estela was born here. Her parents came to the U.S. fleeing violence in Mexico. We’re not using Estela's full name because her mother is also undocumented and fears she could also be arrested.
During his campaign and since taking office in January, President Donald Trump has had a strong message of cracking down on immigrants who are in the country illegally. The arrests of such immigrants with criminal convictions and non-criminal in Iowa and neighboring states are up from last year, and anxiety is high in Iowa's immigrant communities. Iowa is part of the federal Immigration Customs Enforcement region that includes Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Data shows arrests of non-criminal immigrants has increased more than four times for this region compared to the same span of time last year, from 71 to 312.
That said, non-criminal arrests in 2009 were twice as high as 2017.
After her father’s arrest Estela's family called La Resistencia-Iowa, a new hotline run by immigration activists. It provides callers with information on the legal system, and connects families with community services.
“They call to find out if there was something going on,” says activist Maria Alcivar with the organization.
Alcivar says they were getting calls every day in March and April.
That they’re hearing reports of a new style of what she calls “collateral arrests,” where ICE targets a specific individual but also arrests more people who happened to be in the vicinity as well.
“If you’re really going after criminals, rapists, murderers, you’ll be out in the open saying this is the guy I’m getting we’ll all be clapping for you and we’ll say yeah get them out we don’t want them here," Alcivar says.
A spokesman for the regional office would not discuss with IPR how ICE conducts investigations and arrests. But Ben Bergman, an immigration attorney in Des Moines, says the system is set up that any time an immigrant has an interaction with the courts, it could lead to deportation proceedings.
“That just doesn’t mean defendants," Bergmann says. "Domestic abuse, people that have a civil dispute. Like a landlord and tenant dispute. They can go to court and they can get picked up in court.”
Bergman has been practicing immigration law for a decade. He says he and his colleagues in the state are the busiest they’ve ever been. Not just with cases, but with immigrants making sure they have their affairs in order.
“You have unsophisticated people expected to navigated the most sophisticated legal system in the United States,” Bergmann says.
Berrgmann says immigrant attorneys are in short supply in Iowa.
Meanwhile for Estela, her family has an attorney… but were told her father will likely be deported. Leaving her and her 3-year-old sister in a single parent household for the time-being.
"What if I lost both of my parents? Maybe I would live with my aunt…" Estela says. "It’s difficult.”
Leaving immigrant communities in Iowa on edge as arrests continue to climb under the new president who made it a central issue in his campaign.