Conservative Indiana town rallies around immigrant facing deportation
After coming to the U.S. from Colombia in 1999, Armando Paez raised his family in northern Indiana, working as a server and at a packaging company in Elkhart to put his three children through college. When the community of Elkhart learned that he might be deported, they collected over 10,000 signatures in support of his stay. Despite these efforts, on May 17, 2017, Paez is scheduled to be deported back to Colombia, while his family remains in the U.S. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
Election results alone might paint this small town as no more than another conservative bastion that helped elevate Donald Trump to the presidency.
Its residents say they value Trump’s businessman approach to politics, especially those who struggled during the recession, when Elkhart County had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
It would seem an unlikely place for a groundswell of support to rise up for an immigrant who is in the country illegally and scheduled for deportation Wednesday. But politics here aren’t black and white.
Get to know Elkhart’s residents, and they’ll say it’s a town of entrepreneurs and RV industry workers who believe that anyone, with the right amount of hard work and resolve, can climb the economic ladder. It’s a place of "multimillionaires with eighth-grade educations," where people don’t care if you didn’t finish high school or college. At local bars, regulars gripe about politics like anywhere else, but bartenders say they rarely bring up immigration.
Armando Paez was the affable waiter at Antonio’s Italian Ristorante, one of the most frequented restaurants in town, where it wasn’t uncommon for patrons to request him as their server. They knew Paez, 58, worked a second job at a packaging company so he could pay for college for his three children. In a town where just 13 percent of people over 25 hold bachelor’s degrees, it was something people admired.
So when residents found out that Paez, a Colombian immigrant who has been in the U.S. for 18 years, was scheduled for deportation, some were infuriated: This was a man who juggled jobs and worked 18-hour days to provide for a family he rarely saw. If working hard to move up the ladder is the "Elkhart way," residents said, Paez was the standard.
The deportation order was issued last fall under the Obama administration even as the Trump campaign was escalating its anti-immigration rhetoric. Mary Whitt, a 55-year-old resident and Antonio’s patron, started a petition to send to Paez’s immigration case officer. But she and many others who signed it went on to vote for Trump.
In Elkhart County, Trump won 63 percent of the vote; in Indiana, about 57 percent of the population voted for him. Whitt said she voted for Trump believing him to be relatable, and, like her, a good businessperson. As for his immigration stance, she hoped his administration would be "more logical" in deciding who to deport. "Not so rules-for-the-sake-of-rules," she said.
Other residents said they voted for Trump hoping he’d tighten immigration enforcement, adding that they didn’t mind the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his campaign. But they said they never imagined "criminal aliens" would include people like Paez — honest, kind-hearted people with families. In 2000, a year after Paez came to America, he was charged with a misdemeanor DUI, a circumstance that likely made him a higher priority for deportation.
Since the petition was launched, it has been circulated online and throughout Elkhart businesses to "help Armando Paez stay in America with his family and become a U.S. citizen," garnering more than 10,000 signatures, many from people in Northwest Indiana. It was sent to local politicians, the Department of Homeland Security and Trump.
"To see the community around us be Trump supporters, personally for me, it’s understandable. You have your opinion and things like that," said Paez’s 24-year-old daughter, Maria. She was brought to the U.S. with her siblings as a young child.
She said she cried when Trump was elected. But she couldn’t be upset with her community, she said, because of how gracious its residents have been to her family.
"In my opinion, they’ve helped our family. They’ve written letters. They’ve been there to support us. I’m very thankful for that, and for that reason I can’t really say anything else but, simply, thank you."
Armando Paez, a Colombian immigrant living near Elkhart, Ind., is due to be deported Wednesday despite a strong showing of support from his community.
(Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
Elkhart is a majority-white town of about 52,000 people, 15 miles east of South Bend and 110 miles east of Chicago. It sits on two rivers, the St. Joseph and the Elkhart. Its main roads are lined with family restaurants and used-car dealerships, its quiet residential streets with trees.
The cream-colored concrete Main Street Memorial Bridge arches over the St. Joseph River, leading to the downtown cluster of historic buildings and quaint antique shops. On a sunny day last week, posters for a 5k Fun Run hung from lampposts.
Elkhart is sometimes referred to as the "RV Capital of the World," with an economy that depends on the recreation vehicle industry, which employs thousands in the area and brings in tourists from across the country looking to service their RVs. In 2009, during the recession, Elkhart County’s unemployment rate reached 20 percent, and the RV industry, which relies on low fuel prices, shed jobs and struggled to survive.
It’s since recovered, and as of March, Elkhart’s unemployment rate was down to 3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But residents still perked their ears to Trump’s promises of job growth and further economic recovery, eager for a non-politician to shake up Washington.
Some say they saw potential in his unabashed demeanor. Others viewed him as the "lesser of two evils," and a better choice than Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric didn’t necessarily resonate, they say, but they thought perhaps his immigration campaign promises wouldn’t turn into a reality.
That hasn’t been the case. Soon after his inauguration, Trump directed the federal government to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively. In January, he signed an executive order expanding the list of deportation priorities, which now includes any noncitizen who is charged with a criminal offense of any kind or who is suspected of committing criminal acts.
Several Elkhart residents who spoke with the Tribune mentioned they were upset by the deportation of restaurant owner Roberto Beristain, of nearby Mishawaka, in April. His story drew national attention after media outlets reported Beristain’s wife voted for Trump. She had hoped he’d help the economy. Beristain, according to media reports, had no criminal record.
Brandon Stanley, the owner of New Paradigm Brewing Co. in Elkhart, didn’t vote for Trump but knows plenty of people who did. He said Elkhart has residents who’ve voted Republican their entire lives — "Like NASCAR fans, they’re brand-loyal," he said — and younger residents who voted for Trump because of frustrations with the Obama administration.
Stanley doesn’t know Paez but signed the petition online after learning his story. He said the petition was circulated around his bar, too, and most patrons signed.
"Naturally, if someone is found to be a criminal and they’re an illegal immigrant, then people want justice to be carried out properly. But I don’t think you have people going out on headhunting missions by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
"There’s so many jobs in this area that without immigrants, the work wouldn’t be getting done," he said. "We all understand that around here."
Scott Welch, the president and CEO of Welch Packaging, hired Paez to work for his company a few years ago, and quickly noticed his potential. He moved him to the graphics department of the box manufacturing company after Paez spent two years working on the production floor. He said Paez had an admirable work ethic, and was the kind of person "you want to see build your culture."
"Is there a lot of illegals (in Elkhart)? I’m sure there are," he said. "But I don’t think they’re looked upon in any negative way. I think people just get up, go to work and accept people for who they are. Which I really value."
A moment to be happy
A week before his deportation, Paez couldn’t give much thought to what might happen after May 17, the date on his plane ticket.
His daughter Ana’s wedding was Saturday. His other daughter, Maria, was graduating from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. He and his wife, Marta, forced themselves to focus on these celebrations — not what would happen after.
"That day we’re gonna forget about everything going on with my dad and my family," said Ana, 27, about her wedding. "I just want my dad to be happy in that moment."
Paez, who doesn’t want his wife or children to go back to Colombia with him, said he sacrificed too much to give them the best life they could have in the U.S. His wife and children came to the United States legally but overstayed their visas. The children are for now protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, immigration policy.
Paez raised his family in a little house in the neighboring town of Granger, working tirelessly to make sure his children were educated. His son, Juan, just finished his first year of college.
"Always being responsible, buying our little house, investing here — it was all for nothing," he said. "Besides my family, I know that there are many, many other families that are in worse situations, but there has to be someone with a heart that can stop this situation in this country.
"This is the best country in the world, but it has too many inhumane problems. That’s the word — too inhumane."
A matter of fairness
Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said no matter how "nice" they are, no one living in the country illegally has the right to stay, as it’s unfair to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who immigrate to the U.S. legally each year.
"What makes this country different is we are a country based on rule of law. We don’t treat people differently under rule of law because we like them or because one guy is a blue-collar worker or one guy is a white-collar worker in a big Wall Street firm," he said.
"If this guy is such a great guy, why didn’t he apply to come here like the 1 million (people) a year we’re bringing into the country legally?"
Paez had been granted permission to stay in the U.S. during Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-ins in previous years, but in October he was denied. Officers agreed to let him stay in the country until May 17 so he could attend the wedding and graduation. He was told to purchase a plane ticket for that day.
Marta, Paez’s wife, is also fearful about her future in the U.S.
"Because today I’m thinking I’m here, I see my kids, and I say to myself, ‘Tomorrow, what? Tomorrow, what?’ What is going to happen to me tomorrow, because it’s an uncertainty that kills slowly," she said.+
With Paez’s deportation imminent, the community is trying to come to terms with the fact that little can be done. Whitt, who started the petition in late October when Paez and his family first learned there was a chance he’d be deported, met Paez at least 15 years ago at Antonio’s.
She posted an update on the online petition over the weekend. Time is running out, she wrote. "5/17/17 is only days away and we are going to lose a great man that has worked hard to achieve the American dream." She urged people to call Chicago’s ICE office. Comments of support flooded in through Tuesday.
The family is grateful for the community’s support. But when Paez leaves, they’ll have to find a way to get by without him, and that will take some time.
"He’s kind of like the captain of the ship," said Paez’s son, Juan. "Pretty much without him we don’t know what to do. Where to go. We’ve always had him for support. Him always kind of leading the way, creating the path for us.
"Without him it’s kind of like, what do we do now?"