PAINESVILLE, Ohio — With raids and arrests of undocumented workers spreading, hundreds of farmworkers held a silent, solemn Father’s Day march and rally in this mid-sized town about 30 miles east of Cleveland.
“It is mostly fathers working in the fields of Painesville who have been arrested,” Veronica Dahlberg told the crowd when it arrived at the gazebo in a park by City Hall.
The 43 arrested here, she charged, are part of “the biggest immigration sweep in U.S. history.”
“It is called ‘Operation Return to Sender,’” she said. “Since 2006 they have arrested 20,000, but they have 500,000 names on the list. These are not criminals. These are hard-working family members.”
Dahlberg, head of Hispanics of Lake and Ashtabula (HOLA), said she got the information about the national sweep from her congressman, Steve LaTourette, a Republican, after the raids began here May 18.
Baldemar Velazquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which brought two busloads of union members to the event, called the raids “mean-spirited and senseless.”
“Why are the federal agents pursuing this tragic strategy now, when we are in the middle of a legislative process to get the issue resolved?” he asked.
Velasquez said the legislation before Congress is imperfect and the penalties too severe, “but at least it would allow legalization within five years.”
“The arrested workers, at most, committed a misdemeanor,” he said. “The punishment does not fit the crime. Their families are being broken up. Their employers have also broken the law. ICE [the federal immigration agency] is not rounding up the employers.”
Velasquez charged that the crisis has been precipitated by U.S. trade policy. He said U.S. government-subsidized corn flooded Mexico after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and caused displacement of 4 million Mexican corn farmers.
“They have saturated Mexican cities looking for work, and this has led to mass migration to the United States.”
“I have been in this struggle for 39 years,” Velazquez said, “and they still treat us like animals. The time has come to say: This is enough. We are indigenous to these lands, and we will continue to come because we want to feed, clothe and educate our families.
“Stop the raids. Pass laws to complement the new reality of America.”
As Velasquez finished, a young woman with two small children came from the crowd and asked for the bullhorn. Her name was Maribel Rodriguez. She was visibly upset and held her hand on the side of her face as if to stop the flow of tears. Speaking in Spanish, she said she prayed they would send her father back to her.
“I am alone,” she said. “I am the last person left here. This is not fair.”
She said her father, Tonio Rodriguez Moreno, was in a van with others on their way to work at a nursery, when they were stopped and he was arrested May 18. He worked here over five years, she said, and now is in a detention facility in Youngstown. They sent her back his work clothes. She said she did not have the $5,000 needed to post bond.
Someone put a baseball cap down on the ground and asked for donations. People came forward, and it was later announced that $567 had been contributed.
Others also came forward telling their stories of the raids. They included three children who said they were sleeping when men in black uniforms broke into their bedrooms shouting “Wake up, wake up,” and forced them to report to Homeland Security.