Des Moines Register,
May 25, 2008
By Ken Funson
•Postville, Ia. - His name is Santiago Cordero.He shouldn't be here.For some people, perhaps most, judging by the comments posted on blogs and newspaper Web sites, no other information is necessary: He is an illegal alien. He shouldn't be here.But he is, and at 2:30 p.m. today, Santiago Cordero, 18, is expected to join the 33 other members of his senior class at Postville High School's commencement. He and two young women who also shouldn't be here will receive their diplomas.
The three Hispanic graduates were going to celebrate together afterward, invite friends and family members to a big party. Those plans evaporated on May 12, when federal agents stormed the Agriprocessors Inc. meat-processing plant here, conducting the largest single-site workplace raid in U.S. history. Santiago's mother and many other friends were among the 389 detained and arrested. Most face deportation.Santiago wonders if the agents will come next for him. He wonders what he did wrong. He knows what people say: He shouldn't be here."If they met one of us, they might be surprised," he says.
They still talk about the kick.Santiago was one of the first Hispanic students to start on Postville's varsity football team. Last fall he was a co-captain, the kicker and a defensive lineman.During one game, Postville lined up for an extra point. The holder bobbled the snap, just as Santiago was getting ready to kick. So he stopped, his foot in midair, like in a freeze-frame, while the holder recovered the ball. Then he swung his foot down, completed the kick and made the extra point.
"The place went silent," Superintendent David Strudthoff says. "I'd never seen anything like that in my life."After games, Santiago stayed behind to visit with the young Hispanic children. Of the school district's 600 students, about 200 are Hispanic, and the great majority of them are in kindergarten through eighth grade."He understood the concept of what it meant to be a role model," Strudthoff says. "No one sat him down and explained it to him. He understood it."The Hispanic youngsters were instantly drawn to Santiago. He's 5-foot-9, with broad shoulders and an even wider grin. His senior classmates voted him most likely to model for a fashion magazine.
During those postgame visits, Santiago told the youngsters that they, too, should go out for sports."I think if I talk them into going out for sports, it will keep them out of trouble," he says. "If they go out, they're more likely to stay in school."He also volunteered to serve as an interpreter for parent-teacher conferences, and when the younger students needed to have their hearing tested. It wasn't a big deal, he says. He thought he could help.
On the morning of the raid, Santiago and another Hispanic student, Wendy Razam, 18, were with other seniors at a government class field trip in Waukon.At lunch, some of the students turned on their cell phones."Everyone had the same text message," he says.
Agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had detained hundreds of Agriprocessors workers, including Santiago's mother and both of Wendy's parents."It was terrifying," Santiago says. His mother and Wendy's mother were eventually allowed to return to Postville; each wears a monitoring device on an ankle. Santiago expects his mother to be deported to Mexico, and Wendy expects her parents to be sent back to Guatemala. Wendy will probably join them.
"My dreams are broke," she says.Santiago says he will look for work. He doesn't know what he will do, or where. He is the oldest of seven children. Most of the children will return to Mexico with his mother, he figures. A brother might stay in Postville with his father, who has the necessary paperwork to work legally as a school district custodian.Santiago says an uncle escorted him to the United States, a year after his father came here. His mother then brought the rest of the family."I didn't have a choice to come," Santiago says.
He learned English. He went out for football and two school plays, one of the first Hispanics to do so. He studied hard, and will graduate today in the top 10 of his class, with a grade-point average better than 3.0 (out of 4.0).When the senior awards were distributed recently, Santiago received two scholarships and was a "Dollars for Scholars" recipient. He also won a senior volunteer award.
Does any of that matter? Of course not, say the people who write to the school superintendent, including the person who said, "Take your head out of your rectum and look up the definition of 'illegal.' " That was one of the kinder messages. Santiago and the students like him shouldn't be here, they say. Case closed.
"These children didn't have a choice to come to America," Strudthoff says, "but they did have the choice to attend school on a regular basis, they did have a choice to do their homework, they did have a choice to follow the law, they did have a choice to join choir and band, and they did have a choice to be on the student council and go out for sports, and they did have a choice to graduate with honors."They did have that choice. So whenever they were given the choice, they always made the correct choice, but yet they will be subjected to the same punishment for the crimes that their parents committed.
"The morning of the raid, Strudthoff asked a federal official a question he asks often these days: Should children pay for the sins of their parents?The official, he says, replied that it's the parents' fault, not the government's, for putting their children in this situation."If that's such a wise idea, then why don't we apply it to the war on drugs?" Strudthoff says. "If you have a raid in a crack house, if you have a raid in a methamphetamine house, and children are in the house, then shouldn't the children also be arrested? And shouldn't the children be given the same sentence as their parents?"Strudthoff, 51, has been Postville's superintendent for nine years.
He says school officials don't know how many undocumented students there are because he doesn't consider it their job to ask. It's their job to educate them."This is an adult war, not a child's war," he says. "No school I've ever heard of turns 5-year-old children away."His frustration has turned to anger. He wants Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants the opportunity to earn permanent resident status if they attend college or join the military. The U.S. Senate voted against the bill last year; the House has never considered it."If you don't have the courage to stand up and protect the weakest and most vulnerable in our society, then how are you going to tackle something as large and complex as comprehensive immigration reform?" Strudthoff asks. "You can't."A year ago, Santiago approached school officials. Postville, he said, needed a soccer team.Recruit some players, he was told. So he did.
This year, for the first time, Postville fielded a junior varsity soccer team. Twenty-eight students representing five nationalities participated. The team's only loss came to a group of varsity reserves from Cedar Falls.As for next year, "we don't know if we'll even have a team," Strudthoff says.School officials have identified 70 Hispanic children who won't return to Postville next year; some have already fled with their families. Strudthoff doesn't know where they went."When they say the immigration system is broken, that's not really accurate," he says. "It's shattered."Postville's seniors gathered Friday morning to rehearse today's commencement ceremony. A teacher set the parameters for what will be permissible during the actual event:"You can celebrate, you can cheer, but no Silly String."Santiago joked with the boy next to him. He says his classmates have been supportive of him, Wendy Razam and Gaby Campos, 17, a senior who came to the United States from Mexico.Senior Barbara McMullan, 17, says students believe the raid was unfair.
"It's hard to explain, because it's not anyone's fault," she says. "At the same time, it's everyone's fault."Superintendent Strudthoff says the three Hispanic seniors face arrest the instant they graduate."The minute they graduate and I hand them that diploma, they're no different from their parents," he says. "They're a criminal, period."
Tim Counts, an ICE spokesman, says anyone who is in the country illegally can be arrested and removed at any time, regardless of age or academic status."Having said that, we conduct our enforcement actions at the appropriate time and place," he says. "We're certainly sensitive about law enforcement actions in and around schools."This will be Strudthoff's last Postville graduation.
He is leaving for a similar job in Wisconsin. Although the timing with this month's events is coincidental, "health-wise, I think I need to get away from it."Santiago reads the blogs, sees the anonymous comments of those who say he shouldn't be here."Not all people are the same," he says. "There's people who don't have a heart, and there's people who are understanding."He doesn't understand why he's looked at differently than other immigrants in America's past.
"I feel like I did something good," he says. "I haven't gotten into trouble. If I want to stay here and do something good for me and the people around me, I think it should be fine for me to stay."He thinks he would be a good citizen."I have been," he says.A month ago, the three Hispanic seniors thought they would be attending college. None does now.Santiago had hoped to become a police officer. He thinks he could help people.
But that's in the future, if it happens at all. Today, he will walk across the stage, collect his diploma, and either try to find a job in a country where he's not supposed to be, or return to a country that no longer feels like home.Strudthoff will shake his hand and wish him well."It's harder than hell to hate people when you get to know them," he says.