'Vaya con Dios:' the impossible life of a judge on the US immigration frontline

Climbing the shallow gray stone steps leading to the borderlands of justice in Las Cruces, New Mexico, you see something in the arid morning sun gleaming between the glass. It looks like a miniature Washington Monument on the first landing of the 10th district federal courthouse. Closer inspection reveals it represents a border crossing marker, half white Italian marble and half Mexican honey onyx, the union of two places where cultures flow as one not far from the Rio Grande.

Up above on the fourth floor in the Guadalupe courtroom the cultures are torn asunder along with consciences as all rise at 9am sharp on Tuesday for US district court judge Robert Brack entering through a back door to his bench.

Facing him below along the benchrail are 13 unlucky men, ages 20 to 30, in shackles and chains and wearing jail suits of different colors from the counties that rent space to the federal marshal. They wear ear buds for the translation. They are looking down, expressionless.

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Art Cullen
The view from Iowa: where immigrants are at the heart of America's culture war

Somewhere in the confluence of Interstates 80 and 35 near Des Moines, Iowa – our crossroads near the center of the USA – rolls a van full of undocumented Latinos on the promise of a job growing tomatoes or mixing mud for construction.

In O’Neill, Nebraska, and Mount Pleasant, Iowa, scores of Latinos were rounded up by immigration officials and shipped out to points unknown this summer. In O’Neill they were working on a farm growing hydroponic tomatoes. In Mount Pleasant they were netted at a cement factory.

In El Paso, Texas, and nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico, men from Guatemala, or field workers from Mexico are bound in shackles for a plane that will touch them down south of the border to a fate uncertain or worse in a land they knew 10 years ago, if at all.

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Art Cullen
In My Iowa Town, We Need Immigrants

STORM LAKE, Iowa — Julio Barroso was not there last week as President Trump bellowed during his visit to Iowa, closing a job-training round table with another tirade on immigration.

“We can’t have people with open borders,” the president said at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, a 15-minute drive from Dubuque.

Sitting with him were Gov. Kim Reynolds and Representative Rod Blum, both Republicans facing stiff challenges in November. Mr. Trump couldn’t thank Mr. Blum enough — though he called him by the wrong name a couple of times.

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Art Cullen
The stories piled up on a judge’s shoulders

I live well within the border and have flown far south of it. Never have I been to it but we hear about it every day. The border stories resonate far north in Iowa and especially Storm Lake.

A federal judge today sits in Las Cruces, NM, as sad faces process before him five at a draw shackled and awaiting deportation or even prison. Judge Robert Brack will rend his heart over them as he hears their stories and commits them to memory, explains to them that things are not as they used to be, and then knowingly sends them to what probably is a tragic destiny. He is as shackled by the law in which he cloaks himself as the men in colored jail jumpsuits.

“I have presided over a process that destroys families.”

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Art Cullen
At least I got the ex-journalist, and the Irish, vote

I had no inkling that I was a man without honor in my own state until Bill Petroski from The Des Moines Register called last Thursday. I burst out laughing when the veteran reporter told me that a resolution citing me for winning the Pulitzer Prize has been held up by the Republican Senate majority since Feb. 14. Apparently the senators sat around the Bill Dix Memorial Roman Bath and cast their lots against me because we do not like Donald Trump, Steve King, river pollution or secret slush funds involving public officials.

“He is not one of our favorite newspapermen,” Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail, told Petroski.

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Art Cullen
A cynical law

Wasting time from solving important problems, the Iowa House on Tuesday concurred with the Senate and approved on a 55-45 vote a bill that would deny state funding to any jurisdiction that refuses to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. They call such places “sanctuary cities.” There are no sanctuary cities in Iowa. There is no provocation. There is no problem to solve. The bill was unnecessary, and the Iowa Supreme Court might find it unconstitutional. It will have no practical effect other than to instill fear in people of color, especially Latinos. Which is the entire point of the legislation.

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Art Cullen
Look what they’ve done to old friends

While in Kansas City a few weeks back I hooked up with one of my best buds for life and got into a rip-snorting high-decibel argument about politics before his lovely wife and daughter showed up. We both were sober.

It’s gnawed at me since.

I can’t remember how we got onto it but he voted for Trump, no doubt, and I voted for Clinton. It devolved from there. He tried to frame a moral equivalency between Trump and Obama, which blew my stack. I hope nobody in the hotel room next door was trying to catch a pre-supper nap or get cuddly.

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Art Cullen
Times are changing

A couple of recent polls nearly blew our minds: The Des Moines Sunday Register reported in its Iowa Poll that 65% of Iowans — including 62% of those surveyed in the Fourth Congressional District — support a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, and not just Dreamers. Five years ago, the Iowa Poll reported 54% supported citizenship for the undocumented as a “worthy goal.” Ann Selzer, who conducts the poll, tells us that in 2013 a “majority” of those surveyed in the Fourth supported citizenship for the undocumented (without being able to share the 2013 number).

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Art Cullen
Courage? Integrity? Who are they talking about?

We have bragged plenty about winning The Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Last Friday, The Storm Lake Times was presented another prestigious honor that has no less meaning to us: The Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. The award, “for displaying courage, tenacity and integrity often necessary to render public service in rural journalism,” was presented by Institute Director Al Cross at the Iowa Newspaper Association Annual Convention in Des Moines.

The story of Tom and Pat Gish is far more interesting, and courageous, than ours.

The Gishes published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. The motto on the paper’s flag said: “It Screams.”

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Art Cullen
You get what you pay for

A friend called Monday to ask if we would consider writing a piece on the importance of immigrants to Iowa agriculture. We have written the book on it, literally, to be published Oct. 2. We were having a friendly conversation about our mutual interests when she lamented that she was having a hard time selling a $50,000 house after having advertised it on the radio. I told her that was the problem. It is hard to see a house on the radio. Print is the answer. Run that ad once with us and we will run it again for free a week later with “SOLD!” marked on it in red.

She chuckled but did not bite.

Another “friend” on Facebook said she wished that our editorials and opinion columns were published every week on Facebook so that she might read them for free. I don’t eat much, but I do need to eat. I cannot eat that Pulitzer Prize paper weight.

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Art Cullen
Why do we want them?

Donald Trump’s characterization about Africa, Haiti and El Salvador was posed as a question that has not received much of an answer since he blurted it Friday. Why should we take people from these countries and not Norway? he wondered.

For starters, Norwegians have not been flocking to Minnesota and Iowa for about a century. About the only place you can get fresh lutefisk is in Bode, in Humboldt County. Norway doesn’t need us anymore. It is a free and prosperous place. Haiti, not so much. Or El Salvador. They are hellholes, most of us would agree, for the poor and oppressed.

As our congressional philosopher Steve King said, if these are such great places why don’t the refugees go back?

And therein lies the answer.

They are refugees.

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Art Cullen
Shocked

Just a few weeks ago we commented on those Spencer teens who called Storm Lake teens “beaners.” Before that, we commented on folks in Mason City not wanting a new pork plant because it would attract undesirable immigrants and “bad elements” like Storm Lake, they said. Before that, we reported on public comments in Iowa Falls of the same tenor. And before that, we were defending Storm Lake against other comments made at a city council meeting in Spencer about immigrants and Storm Lake. This commenting has been going on a full quarter-century.

So we were shocked — shocked — to hear that a couple radiocasters from Forest City working the home game against Eagle Grove made disparaging remarks about the visiting Latinos. The man with white hair was fired by the radio station and the woman, who also is a longtime Forest City teacher, was placed on administrative leave by the school district and fired by the radio station. She needed to retire anyway.

Certainly the other teachers don’t talk that way, or the other radio folks or anybody else in Forest City or Eagle Grove or Spencer or Mason City.

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Art Cullen
Planting sideways

They were just getting into the beans last week at the edges until it rained Monday. They were kept from it on Sunday by the Knights of Columbus Omelette Breakfast at, of course, the KC Hall. They think the beans look excellent and the corn not so excellent as it suffered so from an extended drought. The beans might hit 60 on a lot of acres, and the corn might come in at 175 bushels — a testament to the power of genetics against drought. Long and short, you might make a few bucks on the soybeans and lose a few bucks on the corn.

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Art Cullen
Blackballed for educating counties about manure

Gene Tinker smelled his own demise in June. He was the worker who oversaw animal feeding operations for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Representatives from the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Pork Producers were in Director Chuck Gipps office complaining that Friday about Tinker educating county boards of supervisors what their capacity might be in objecting to hog confinement sitings.

He was not invited to the meeting.

Afterwards, he asked Gipp if he still had a job. Gipp laughed it off.

On Monday, Tinker said, his supervisor told him to quit educating boards.

Three weeks later he was gone. A victim of budget cuts, they said.

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Art Cullen
There’s no denying it

It was nice of Gov. Kim Reynolds to stop by Little Storm Lake on Wednesday to talk up water quality. We appreciate it. We wish she would champion the Department of Natural Resources and more funding for lakes. The day before, she was at the Farm Bureau building down there in West Des Moines talking with Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley how awful the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule hanging over from the Obama Administration is. A “land grab.” An assault on farmers. They impressed that point on the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who would just as soon eliminate the agency. Certainly he could just do away with WOTUS with the stroke of a pen. Why waste more breath?

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Art Cullen
We are the silverfish of humanity

Tigranes the Armenian had a migraine when the messenger came with news that Lucullus the Roman was on his way to settle a score over, of all places, Syria. Tigranes cut off the messenger’s head which caused no one pain, at least that the messenger could report, but Tigranes had a big headache when Lucullus did show up. Nobody else brought him bad news, and eventually Tigranes was swallowed up by the Roman Empire and couldn’t hear it anymore.

“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news,” Sophocles reflected in Antigone.

It should come as no shock that Iowans love God and the military and the Iowa State Patrol, salute, but the lowly reporter is forever scorned. So sayeth the Iowa Poll last week. The media is down there in Iowans’ estimation with Congress, which has the lowest approval record since Tigranes lost Syria.

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Art Cullen
Heir to Ignoramus

Ignoramus, Merriam Webster Dictionary tells us, is the title character in a 1615 farce by George Ruggle. In Latin, the word means “we do not know.” Ruggle set up Ignoramus as a lawyer who fancies himself to be quite shrewd but is actually foolish and ignorant, a metaphor for the British legal system of the time. Thus the word applies perfectly to President Donald Trump, who visited Cedar Rapids last week for one of his rallies devoid of fact but full of snark. In the heart of Iowa, the greatest generator of wind energy per capita in the nation, the Ignoramus in Chief was talking up the dying coal industry and said, “I don’t want to just hope that the wind blows to light up your homes and your factories.” Then he paused, and added: “as the birds fall to the ground.”

First, to the dead birds.

Have you heard the crows? They are everywhere, in the fields and the parks and around the windmills. The police were shooting at them in a coordinated attack. The pigeons. They poop downtown. The geese rule the Storm Lake Marina, the Lake Trail, Scout Park and every other park. They grease the sidewalks and the docks. They escort their little goslings down the greasy runway into the lake when the dog chases by. The red tail hawks are said to be killing the pheasants. These damn birds are everywhere, mulberries purpling the Sunset Park path.

This just four miles from North America’s largest wind turbine complex.

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Art Cullen