DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa City pastor and father of four arrested on immigration charges 17 years after being convicted of drunken driving has been deported to Honduras, his attorney said Friday.
David Leopold, an attorney for Max Villatoro, shared an email with The Associated Press from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that confirms Villatoro was removed from the U.S. on Friday and had arrived in Honduras. Villatoro, 41, was detained March 3 during a five-day nationwide operation targeting convicted criminals living in the country illegally, yielding the arrests of 2,059 people.
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 that ended March 5. All targeted immigrants fell into one of two categories outlined in a November memo from the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson that reflect new policies for the apprehension, detention and removal of those in the U.S. without permission, according to an ICE news release.
The release noted all those targeted were considered public safety threats, and that ICE considers drunken driving offenders to be “significant” threats.
But Leopold said the November memo also allows for discretion on a case-by-case basis, claiming that there was “clear language” directing immigration officials to look more closely. According to the document, those with certain convictions must be removed “unless … there are factors indicating the alien is not a threat to national security, border security, or public safety, and should not therefore be an enforcement priority.”
“If Villatoro doesn’t fit into that exception, then who does?” Leopold said. “That’s why this is so maddening.”
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.
“There are factors here that indicate he’s not a threat,” Leopold said.
Neudauer said he couldn’t comment on the language in the memo and how it applies to Villatoro’s case. However, he said Villatoro had exhausted his legal options and his deportation was the next step.
“In accordance with his court-ordered removal, Mr. Villatoro was flown, via an ICE Air Operations flight, to Honduras March 20 and turned over to Honduran immigration authorities,” Neudauer said in a prepared statement.
Villatoro’s wife, Gloria, said her husband called her from the airport Friday morning, telling her he was boarding a plane. She said she couldn’t put into words what she’s feeling - only that she and her children are worried for his well-being.
Honduras had one of the highest murder rates in the world over the last five years, according to the U.S. State Department, which issued a travel warning earlier this month saying the level of crime and violence in the country remain critically high.
“And Max is scared, too,” she said.
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