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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Documents: Plant owners 'willfully' used ineligible workers

This young woman cries while standing outside the Koch Foods Inc., plant as U.S. immigration officials raid the plant in Morton, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. U.S. immigration officials raided several Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday and signaled that the early-morning strikes were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as employees. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Down at the border, they’re gonna put up a wall Concrete and rebar steel beams High enough to keep all those filthy hands off Of our hopes and our dreams People who just want the same things we do In the land of the free

— The Killers, “Land of the Free”

There are stories you never forget.

They come to you at odd times. They haunt you because the injustice is almost too much to bear.

So it is with the story of Encarnacion Bail Romero.

A dozen years ago she was arrested and jailed in an immigration raid at a Barry County poultry plant in southwest Missouri. It was a raid much like the one in Mississippi last week, where nearly 700 poultry plant workers were rounded up for possible deportation.

Like many of those workers seeking their American dream, Romero was an undocumented immigrant. She had a 1-year-old son, named Carlos, who was a dual citizen of the U.S. and Romero’s home country of Guatemala.

I met Romero as she sat in a courtroom at the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City, as her attorneys fought for her to regain her child. The boy had been watched by family members while she was in jail, but eventually was adopted by a couple in Carthage, Missouri.

Romero spoke little English. Her son was taken from her without her understanding what was happening, her attorneys argued.

She won and lost at the same time.

The court called what happened to Romero a “manifest injustice.” A unanimous court ordered a new trial over the custody of the child. But at the same time the court ruled 4-3 that the child, already 5 before the case reached the judges, should stay with the adoptive family until the lower court decided what to do.

Romero never got her son back. He’s 13 now.

This is the tragic reality when the government uses its power to separate parents from children.

It’s happening at the border, at migrant centers where children are ripped from the grasp of their mothers and fathers and held in inhumane conditions while parents are sent back across the border.

It happened last week in Mississippi as fearful and confused children were helped by strangers as they came out of school to find out that their parents would not be picking them up that day.

It happens in the heartland of America.

“There’s no real winners in these kinds of cases,” says Seattle attorney Omar Riojas.

In 2010, he and attorney Chris Huck of DLA Piper represented Romero pro bono. The two attorneys now have their own firm. Riojas learned of Romero’s case after successfully representing another Guatemalan immigrant in a similar situation.

In 2005, Maria Luis had been separated from her two children — Daniel and Angelica — after being picked up by immigration authorities in Grand Island, Nebraska, where she, too, worked at a meat-processing plant.

Luis was deported to her Mayan community in the Sierra de Chuacús mountain range. Riojas and other attorneys got to work on unifying the family.

This is what the broken immigration system in the U.S. looks like. As bad as things have become under President Donald Trump — intentionally so, according to comments from some of his immigration officials — the racist-in-chief didn’t start this problem.

President Barack Obama deported a record number of undocumented immigrants during his eight years in office. And packing plant raids like those that tangled Romero and Luis in their web have been going on since even before that.

The heartbreaking images out of Mississippi last week, of crying children wondering if they’ll ever see their parents again, are not new.

For far too long, this has been the American way.

Companies that can’t find Americans to do the backbreaking work of harvesting the fields and packaging the meat that the country’s consumers demand turn to undocumented immigrants to do the work. Immigration agents raid the plants, deport workers and separate families.

Lives are devastated. The billionaires who run the companies that hire the workers pay a pittance of a fine, if that, and get back to making their money on the backs of cheap labor.

Rinse. Repeat. This is American immigration policy in the land of the free.

Several months ago, I sat in a Catholic church in St. Charles, as volunteer attorneys spoke to undocumented immigrants, many of them young couples clutching their children in their arms, about how to protect their children in case they were captured in a deportation raid.

The parents sign powers of attorney so that somebody who is a citizen in the country can take care of their children — in most cases also U.S. citizens — should they be jailed and/or deported.

Sometimes it’s family. Other times it’s strangers, people they’ve met in their communities that they have come to trust to help their family in a time of need. It’s hard to look a mother in the eyes as she signs a document to protect her child in anticipation that the U.S. government will separate her from her loved ones.

Romero didn’t have that option. Neither did Luis. One mom was reunited with her children. Another wasn’t.

But nobody won.

Luis’ son, Daniel, is now 21. A U.S. citizen, he’s back in Grand Island, working at a meat-packing plant, sending money to Guatemala to his mother and sister, clutching that American dream that these days is little more than an apparition.

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