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What it’s like to be 13 and have your mom detained in an immigration raid

Javier Zarracina / Vox
Byrd Pinkerton is a senior producer and reporter on Unexplainable, Vox's science podcast. She covers everything scientists don’t yet know but are trying to figure out, so her work explores everything from the inner workings of the human body to the distant edges of the universe.

It was the biggest workplace immigration raid the US had seen to date.

On May 12, 2008, 389 workers, almost all of them Hispanic, were detained at a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. They were taken to a cattle show ground in nearby Waterloo and tried in groups as large as 10 at a time. Most were imprisoned and then deported.

The workers were traumatized, but so were their family members.

“I just remember sinking into my desk and just crying,” Pedro Lopez Vega says, thinking back to the day he found out his mother had been detained. He was a teenager, in middle school.

In an episode of our podcast, Weeds in the Wild, we explore all the effects the Postville raid had on the town and on the state of Iowa. Pedro is featured in that piece. But we also wanted to give you more of his story, since it gives a sense of the long-term impacts a raid can have on an individual person.

Pedro lived in fear after the raid. He was undocumented, as were his parents and his older sister. His father was still at home. He worked a different shift at the meatpacking plant, so he hadn’t been caught in the raid. But he couldn’t go back to work, and the family was afraid to go outside.

The family has since become documented. They received U visas — a visa given to people who have been victims of crimes and are willing to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute those crimes. Several workers at Agriprocessors in Postville were given these visas so they could testify about the working conditions in the plant.

You can listen to Pedro’s interview above, or read it below. It’s been edited for clarity and length.

Byrd Pinkerton

Tell me what happened that day.

Pedro Lopez Vega

I was 13, I believe, at the time of the raid. And I mean, 13-year-old Pedro is so naive. There's a lot of things I don't understand. Immigration was like an urban legend. Like the boogeyman.

We were going into the class. We noticed there was a black helicopter that was just kind of roaming around the town. Everyone's like, “What is it? Who is it?” You know, “What's going on?”

My mom is absolutely everything to me. I was 13. I couldn't really start to comprehend not having my mom when I got home.

And then they definitely confirmed that it was immigration, and yeah. At that moment, I just remember sinking into my desk and just crying.

I remember when I got home, seeing my dad just very distraught, very confused. My father, he was the guy you went to when you needed something. I never saw him crack. He was very strong, physically and emotionally. So when I saw him in this state, it really, really made me understand that we were going to be in for a long and complicated period in our life. Which was an understatement.

Byrd Pinkerton

What did he say to you?

Pedro Lopez Vega

He just kind of looked at us and he said, “They have your mom.”

My mom actually had her cellphone and called my dad and she said, “They got me. They have me. I'm being arrested.”

There were rumors that in some places where they went, they would ask the person that they had, “Where do you live?” and then they would conduct house-to-house raids.

My dad got scared that they were gonna start coming to the houses.

He sent us down to the basement, and he's like, “Just stay down there for a little bit.”

“A little bit” turned out to be a week and a half or something like that. We didn't know what was going to happen next. There was so much uncertainty.

I would try to talk to my younger sister and just tell her that things were going to be okay and we were going to be fine, were going to see Mom, were going to be able to finish the school year okay.

Byrd Pinkerton

Did you believe that?

Pedro Lopez Vega


No, honestly I thought that maybe the rumors were going to be true and we would get caught. I thought we were going to end up in Mexico.

I didn't have a clue about what it was to be in Mexico. I didn't have a clue about school in Mexico. Where would I go? Would they speak English? Was it all in Spanish?

I'd be living somewhere else in a country I didn't know that well.

My dad was like, “If anything at all, we'll all be back in Mexico and we could survive there. We can make things work there.”

It just ... I don't know. The glimmer of hope he was offering me was, I don't know, it was too scary for me. It was daunting, it was overwhelming, and just exhausted me.

Byrd Pinkerton

So after the week passed, what happened?

Pedro Lopez Vega

My dad worked at the plant; he was the maintenance guy. They fired everybody. They were doing major cuts to the plant afterward.

So my dad lost his job.

I helped my dad work at a farm for a little bit, and it was the worst thing ever. I was so tired. There were days that I would cry because I didn't want to go to the next shift. I was so tired already.

Byrd Pinkerton

How old were you?

Pedro Lopez Vega

I was 14, I think, at that time.

It was just ... it was something I felt I had to do as well, because my dad was the only one working and we had bills to pay. We had mouths to feed.

There were times that we didn't have enough money for groceries or to pay all the bill, so my older sister and my dad would decide which one we needed, the light or the water.

I remember one of my teachers came over one day, and he had groceries for us. Like a week and a half worth of groceries. It was the best gift that I've had.

That whole period sucked, if I could say it plainly. It was just awful. I don't know. I felt sad. I felt guilty in the fact that I was the reason my parents were there, you know, because they wanted my sisters and I to have a good education, to have opportunity.

They survived the crossing. They did all this. And now it's game over. And it was because of me. They wanted me to have a better chance.

And that's why I study law, so I can make it an even playing field. I want moms and dads, I want families to have what my parents wanted me to have, which is opportunity, and if I could do that, I think I'd be both paying back the great debt I owe my parents and also contribute to the community that I come from.

Byrd Pinkerton

What’s your visa status?

Pedro Lopez Vega

Right now I'm a green card holder.

Byrd Pinkerton

Do you want to become a citizen?

Pedro Lopez Vega

I did.

It's different now. America is different to me now. The president that we have now.

In Iowa, my county was carried by Donald Trump. I do feel safe, but I just, I feel like ... I don't know. It's different.

Iowa seemed to be a friendly state to me. The people were pretty good. There's, like, a Midwestern nice type of thing going.

But, I mean, it was a red state. And now it scares me that maybe the person that was saying, “Hello how are you doing?” at the grocery line really is only saying hello to be Midwestern nice, but then believes I should definitely be removed from this country. Or thinks I was an anchor baby.

It makes you, it makes you ... I don't know. Distrust a lot of people.

Many thanks to Pedro for his story, and to Luis Argueta, who has made a three-part documentary about immigration, for putting us in touch.

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