- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 10, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Supporters of a longtime Iowa City pastor and father of four facing deportation to Honduras for a 17-year-old conviction traveled to Omaha Tuesday to deliver a petition calling for his release.

Family, friends and advocates of Max Villatoro stopped in Des Moines on their journey to transport six boxes with a petition containing at least 25,518 signatures from people in all 50 states to Omaha’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. Villatoro, 41, was among more than 2,000 people arrested last week as part of a five-day nationwide operation targeting convicted criminals living in the country illegally.

Of those detained, more than 1,000 had felony convictions, 58 were associated with gangs and 89 were convicted sex offenders. ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said a drunken driving conviction dating to 1998 classified Villatoro as an enforcement priority, making him one of 17 arrested in Iowa during the operation.

Another prominent Iowa immigrant, 50-year-old Gustavo Villalpando-Bolanos, founder and owner of the Azteca chain of Mexican restaurants in Davenport, was also arrested during the sweep. His nearly two-decade-old conviction related to helping immigrants enter the U.S. illegally led to his detainment in Wisconsin pending deportation.

All targeted immigrants fell into one of two categories established in November that reflect new policies for the apprehension, detention and removal of those in the U.S. without permission, according to an ICE news release issued Monday.

The petition seeks to block Villatoro’s deportation, which would separate him from his four children, ages 7 through 15 and all U.S. citizens, and his wife, a native of Mexico who was brought here when she was 8. Family members and other supporters of Villatoro said he has turned his life around since his drunken driving conviction and subsequent guilty plea to record tampering in 1999, serving as a pastor at First Mennonite Church in Iowa City.

“He doesn’t deserve this,” said Villatoro’s 13-year-old daughter, Etna Villatoro. “I want him back.”

In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security took action to deport Villatoro. A series of appeals and denials followed, culminating in his arrest March 3 when he left his house for work. Villatoro is being held at the Hardin County Correctional Center in Eldora as he awaits deportation.

Villatoro’s wife, Gloria Villatoro, has vowed to fight until her family is reunited, saying her husband is now “more of an Iowan than Honduran.”

“Everything is here for him in Iowa,” she said. “One way or another, my kids are going to wake up from this nightmare.”

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