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The First Presbyterian Church, which became a crossroads for families and supporters of 32 immigrant cement plant workers who were detained, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, May 27, 2018. The workplace raid has opened fissures among the town’s churches and secular leaders, bringing an abstract national issue painfully close to home. (William Widmer/The New York Times)

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Church vs. church in a small town split by an immigration raid

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — In the days after immigration agents raided a dusty concrete plant on the west side of town, seizing 32 men from Mexico and Central America, the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, got into an impassioned argument on his Facebook page.

"The Bible doesn't promote helping criminals!!!!" a Trump supporter wrote.

Hegar answered with Leviticus: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."

The Trump supporter came back with the passage in the Gospel of Mark about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and added for good measure: "Immigration laws are good and Godly! We elected our leaders and God allowed it."

President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown has been promoted with biblical righteousness by senior members of his administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And in heartland communities where the president is popular, the crackdown is often debated — by supporters and critics alike — through the lens of Christian morality.

In Mount Pleasant, a town of 8,500 in rural southeast Iowa that voted heavily for Trump, the president's immigration policies created a sharp, unexpected fracture in the days after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents descended on May 9. Fault lines appeared among public officials, businesses and, especially, the town's many churches.

"This whole immigration thing has been an abstraction," said state Rep. Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant. "It's been on TV and in the newspapers. And all of a sudden, it's here in our town. Relationships and everything are all of a sudden up for grabs."

It was a few weeks before parent-child separations at the border exploded into the news, exposing divisions among faith groups nationally. Mainline Protestant churches harshly condemned Trump for his policy of separating families. Evangelical leaders also deplored the separations, although they largely deflected blame away from Trump. The expressions of dismay helped to drive his eventual retreat from the policy, but they reflected the same interfaith divide that opened in Mount Pleasant over the workplace raid, another facet of the administration's "zero tolerance" policy.

Hegar, a Texan who served four years in the Marines before attending a Presbyterian seminary, finally asked the Trump supporter he was debating on Facebook: "Which Scripture do we obey?"

He answered himself: "The one from Jesus to 'Do unto others' is what we choose."

Hegar's church on Walnut Street is across from the site of Mount Pleasant's most popular event, a Labor Day festival of steam-powered tractors and other farm machinery. In the days and weeks after the raid, the church became a hectic crossroads for family members of the detained men and their supporters. Parishioners in a group called Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors raised $80,000 to help detainees' families pay rent, utilities and legal fees.

Other mainline Protestant churches, including the Lutherans, contributed to the fund, as did the Catholics at St. Alphonsus, where a Spanish Mass is held once a month. Notably absent from the donor roll, though, were Mount Pleasant's evangelical churches.

Hegar said he heard relatives of a detained man say that the pastor of the evangelical church they have attended for years had not called to ask if he could help them. "My heart breaks for that," Hegar said.

The town's evangelical pastors, whom he knows, are compassionate individuals, he said, "but to see nothing, after something like this in their backyards — I'm shocked."

He attributed their silence to the strong political alignment between American evangelicals and Trump, who counts heavily on their votes.

"The nationalistic politics and theology goes hand in hand now," Hegar said. "It drives me crazy when we don't practice what Jesus preaches because of the mix of religion and national politics."

Pastors of three leading evangelical churches in Mount Pleasant declined repeated requests over several weeks seeking comment for this article.

One evangelical pastor who did agree to an interview in the days after the raid was Jim Erwin, the head of Wellspring Evangelical Free Church. He said no one from the mainline churches had suggested he raise money; if they had, he said, he might have chipped in.

But Erwin added that he believed the detentions were justified: "Because they're breaking the law, I recognize the authorities do need to come in and do that."

On a day in mid-May when the president referred to immigrants who join gangs as "animals," more than 100 people crowded into the fellowship hall of the First Presbyterian Church, including about 25 wives and children of the detained men.

Walfred Urizar-Lopez, 15, said that he and his father, Elmer Urizar-Lopez, 41, fled Guatemala for their lives after a gang tried to recruit Walfred as a drug courier. His father had gone to the police, but their advice was to cooperate with the drug runners; his father refused.

"The gang told my dad he has no idea what kind of problems he will have," Walfred said at the church, speaking through a translator.

The arrest of his father in the factory raid left Walfred, a high school sophomore, alone in Mount Pleasant. In jeans and a flannel shirt, he thrust his hands into his pockets and fought back tears.

"His situation right now, it's very bad," said Eneida Carillo, whose family, also from Guatemala, had taken Walfred in. She said a lawyer had told them that day that Walfred's father would probably be deported. Carillo began to cry

"As soon as his dad gets back, they will probably kill him," she said.

STEPPED-UP ENFORCEMENT

Workplace raids like the one in Mount Pleasant were de-emphasized by the Obama administration, but they have been stepped up sharply under Trump. Experts say the raids are meant to deter immigrants from showing up for work or entering the country to seek jobs. Raids at 7-Elevens across the country in January and at a Tennessee slaughterhouse in April made headlines; scores of workers were detained at Ohio meatpacking plants in late June.

No charges have been filed against the owners of the Midwest Precast Concrete plant in Mount Pleasant that was raided. An ICE spokesman declined to comment, citing a continuing investigation.

According to Robin Clark-Bennett of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, 23 of the 32 arrested men have been released on bond, three have been deported and five remain in jail facing criminal charges.

While emotions ran high at the meeting in the fellowship hall, not everyone in Mount Pleasant, nor even at First Presbyterian, sided with Hegar.

"I agree with our president: Our borders, we can't open it to everybody," said Rusty King, the church's custodian, the following day.

"We've got enough poor people here in Iowa that need help," King said. "I work three jobs and still live paycheck to paycheck."

After an initial conversation with a reporter about immigration, he seemed to avoid follow-up calls and texts. But he had a granddaughter, Angel King, pass along a Facebook post written by a young man from Mount Pleasant that echoed King's own views.

"I can't hold my tongue any longer," Garrett Carlston wrote in the post on May 10, when supporters of the detainees were rallying at the Henry County Courthouse. "I feel bad for the families that are going to be torn apart by this, but it's hard for me to sit here and act like it isn't the fault of the people who brought them across the border."

He wrote that the vigil keepers lacked sympathy for American citizens. "What about the ones living in Mount Pleasant who couldn't find a job because they were employing illegal immigrants instead?"

The view that immigrants take jobs from citizens or depress wages was a common one, but it was disputed by local business owners. The unemployment rate in Henry County is 2.9 percent, and many factories display "Hiring" signs.

Gary Crawford, who owns Mt. Pleasant Tire ("We keep you rolling"), said he paid tire installers $16 to $24 an hour, with full benefits. "I know most of the people who run the factories," he said. "They just can't find help."

Crawford belongs to St. Alphonsus Catholic Church and on the Sunday after the ICE raid, he heard the Rev. Paul Connolly, with the detained men in mind, devote his homily to the Good Samaritan, the exemplar of caring for strangers. "All of us were immigrants at one time," the priest said.

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