Columbus Junction sits at center of immigration debate


More than 20 years ago, Gilberto Ortega of El Salvador hid in a truck bound for the United States. Alongside his sister, Ortega made a risky journey of almost 2,000 miles to “give my wife and two kids a better life.” It was this thought that followed him to Houston as well as on the train ride he hitched to Chicago. After three years of separation, Gilberto gained relief when he saw his family for the first time. Together, they now reside in southeast Iowa.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced an executive action that could potentially grant millions of undocumented immigrants a legal reprieve from deportation, under certain circumstances. His order has been criticized as falling outside of his presidential realm, but it has also received support by those who believe this new stance on the current immigration policy is in the country’s best interest.

For residents of Columbus Junction, Iowa, this executive action could initiate drastic changes for families who wish to remain an undivided unit. Columbus Junction, which has no more than 2,000 inhabitants, has uniquely become the home for immigrant families over the past two decades, families hailing from various Latin American countries and families who arrive as Chin-Burmese refugees. At 4 a.m., many parents wake up to walk or drive to Tyson Fresh Meats, the local meatpacking plant, to work while their children sleep until school begins at the Columbus Community School District, where 64.5 percent of the student population is of Hispanic origin.


In light of Obama’s new executive action, journalism students at Columbus High School measured the significance of Obama’s action by interviewing local residents.

“It would be impossible to deport them all,” said Paola De La Paz, a senior at Columbus.

Junior Ashley Canny agrees that “it’s difficult to think of something else we can do.”


According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. As a result of what Obama designated a “broken immigration system” in late November, 5 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants will be impacted by the recent executive action.

De La Paz and classmate Jazzmen Briones, both native Iowans, admit that they will be personally affected by means of being related to some of the 5 million. “Everyone should get a chance at a good life; everyone is equal, the only difference is skin color, language, and home,” Briones said.


Relatives are not the only residents of Columbus Junction who feel they will be affected by Obama’s action. If you were “born and raised” in Iowa, like 69-year-old Judy Fulton, taxes are of great importance concerning the new executive plan. Fulton says immigration “needs to be controlled legally.” Obama, in her opinion, “has so many programs out there; someone has to pay for them. It is the taxpayers who pay for them…they (illegal immigrants) need to pay taxes the same as people who are born here.” 

In addition, Chris Wulf, Columbus High School guidance counselor, brings up the future possibility that students affected by the action will “apply for government aid for college or secondary school benefits.”


In response to Wulf, Obama’s action will reprieve undocumented immigrants from deportation by expanding Deferred Action Programs that have prolonged the authorization of undocumented immigrants to work legally, thus allowing them to pay taxes.

The U.S. Department of Education for Federal Student Aid has confirmed that “undocumented students, including DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students and Dreamers (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), are not eligible for federal student aid. Surely the economy would not suffer in either instance.

Perhaps the most personal of the interviews conducted were those that captured the spirit of those who will be directly affected by the executive action – those who have been undocumented immigrants.

For Francisca Ruiz of Sonora, Mexico, Obama’s presidential order spurred feelings of disbelief within her. Her response is a bewildered, but joyous one: “I don’t know. I hope there is a probability of it becoming true! I arrived here on Dec. 3, 1993 at the age of 17 years. I have now 21 years here in the U.S.A. without returning to Mexico. I have five children born here and that makes me happy. On the other hand, it is like my home here, I grew up here, but I would like to go to Mexico to see my family; that is the only thing I am missing so that I may be immensely happy.” 

Many immigrants like Ruiz have not returned to their country of origin in decades to see their families in fear that they will be deported. As a result, Ruiz has been trying to become a U.S. citizen for five years, and although the new action will not grant citizenship, it would be her first step in what Obama reiterates as coming “out of the shadows” and getting “right with the law.”

“People no longer have to isolate themselves,” states Georgina Buendia, a community liaison for Roundy Elementary School in Columbus Junction. “I came to the U.S. when I was 22 years old. I was very fortunate because I was already a citizen. I applied for U.S. citizenship. I didn’t have to go through a hardship.” 

Despite not being directly affected by the executive order, Buendia feels empathy toward the parents of the families she assists. “I’ve seen many families struggle…it is very difficult to come here legally,” she says.

Throughout the interviews, the difficulty of becoming a legal citizen became a common theme. Wulf, the high school guidance counselor, says “there are a lot of hoops and red tape that make it difficult to make people to be in compliance with the law. I think the process needs to be easier to navigate.”

Jeff Martin, a high school government teacher, insisted that “if you are doing the right thing for our country, then you have every right to be a U.S. citizen.”

And with citizenship comes opportunity. Carlota Ramirez, daughter of a Texan mother and a father who was a naturalized Mexican-American citizen stresses the opportunities that will arise for those who partake in a Deferred Action Program. On a daily basis, Carlota serves as an interpreter at Tyson Fresh Meats in Columbus Junction. She translates from English to Spanish and vice versa so hundreds of people may understand each other in the workplace. Her future coworkers, those who will receive a work permit under the new executive action, “will be given a voice. Parents of children who normally have no comment will be more comfortable to discuss their children’s needs.”

“I will be able to work,” Olivia Andrade said hopefully, “because I don’t work and we are six in the family. Only my husband works and that’s not enough income.” Almost 20 years ago, Andrade of Mexico walked for miles to cross the border with her 6-month-old daughter in her arms. Today, her daughter, Yesica Ramirez-Andrade, is one of the brightest students at Columbus High School, a determined athlete and, because of her exceptional dedication to academics, a member of the National Honor Society.

Directly impacted or not, a diverse group of community members have chosen Columbus Junction as their home, some to survive and others to thrive. Hard-working, undocumented immigrants of several years are a minority of people who are asking to be included into the land of individual prosperity and unanimous growth. Obama’s executive action could be the glimpse of opportunity Andrade refers to as “a better future.”


ERICA RAMIREZ is a senior at Columbus Community High School in Columbus Junction. She will graduate in January and will attend an undetermined college next fall to major in journalism and public policy. This story was also reported by the following Columbus students in Steve Riley’s journalism class: Callie Bean, Rachel Bean, Allison Fulton, Cecilia Ortega, Yesica Ramirez-Andrade, John Rees, Erin Rush, and Jasmin Valenzuela. Contact: [email protected]


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