ICE Ordered Alex Garcia to Report for Deportation. He Took Sanctuary in a Maplewood Church Instead 

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click to enlarge Benjamin Zuniga (right) has found support on the job site with, from left, Corbit Barnet, Michael Litterst and Jarrod Lewis. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Benjamin Zuniga (right) has found support on the job site with, from left, Corbit Barnet, Michael Litterst and Jarrod Lewis.

The drive to Poplar Bluff from Maplewood winds south, rising and falling over the hills for more than 150 miles. It was still summer when Garcia left home in September, but now the leaves have begun to change to bright oranges and reds as fall takes hold.

Benjamin Zuniga, Garcia's father-in-law, has been at work since 4 a.m., splitting time between two job sites along the city's main commercial district.

"Alex is the man every man wants for his daughter," he says. "That will tell you everything."

Built like a jockey, the 56-year-old has a graying mustache, a tape measure on his hip and wire-rimmed glasses. He and Garcia have worked side-by-side nearly every day for the past six years, or at least they did until the trouble with ICE.

Zuniga immigrated to the United States from Mexico at age seventeen. Back then, in the pre-9/11 era, it was much easier to obtain legal residency, he says. He traveled from California to Illinois and met his wife on his first night in Chicago. He first visited the town of Poplar Bluff nearly 30 years ago to work with his father-in-law, who had a contract installing cable TV service. When the contract was over, Zuniga decided to move there for good.

He estimates there were only one or two other Hispanic people there at the time, but like Garcia decades later, he proved himself through work. He took a job at the Tyson plant and switched to construction when he grew tired of chickens. Over the years, Poplar Bluff has become home. He raised his daughter here, and now gets to see his grandchildren grow up here, too. He has a house twenty minutes outside of town and another 35 acres of woods he uses as a hunting camp on the rare days he can get away. It is the kind of middle-class life that has always been the promise of the American Heartland.

Garcia was following the same path, and he worked alongside other men doing the same thing. The only difference is that he remains undocumented.

Jim Bailey, a developer who hired Garcia and Zuniga to overhaul a pair of shopping centers in town, says Garcia had "gotten himself in a pickle" by entering illegally, but he can't see any sense in throwing out a working man who has five kids depending on him.

"You take Alex out of the equation, and you're going to see a mother and five kids on some type of assistance, if not full assistance," he says.

Bailey, Zuniga and a handful of contractors, laborers and business owners feel so strongly about supporting Garcia that they have pooled money to cover his bills during the past two months.

"He's just a good, honest guy that wants to work hard for his family," Bailey says. "That's a very rare thing these days."

Shortly after lunch on a cold, windy day earlier this month, Zuniga drops by what will soon be a new Starbucks to help finish a concrete pad out back. With a population of about 17,200, Poplar Bluff has managed to avoid the decline of other Midwestern towns. In addition to Bailey's two resurrected shopping centers, new buildings are going up on the west end of town near the four-year-old Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center. A coalition of businessmen is pushing a plan to expand a section of interstate to create a prime Chicago-to-Dallas route that would pass through town.

There's plenty of work, which makes Garcia's absence all the more noticeable.

Near the future Starbucks, Zuniga is met by a host of familiar faces. Everyone on the site knows about the potential deportation.

"Almost puts tears in my eyes, all the things they've done to him," Corbit Barnet, 58, says.

Poplar Bluff is a conservative town, and the men on the crews are about the opposite of bleeding-heart progressives. During a break, 51-year-old Jarrod Lewis jokes about how shocked his daughter's liberal classmates at Saint Louis University law school were when they learned about the AR-15 rifle he gave her as a gift. The story gets a round of laughs.

The Second Amendment might as well be a commandment, but discussions about immigration have become pretty nuanced. There is general agreement that immigrants should come here legally, but they also believe there should also be a better path to citizenship for a guy like Garcia, someone who has worked hard and supported his family.

"He's been living the American Dream, and there's a lot of people who are natural-born citizens that are not taking advantage of the American Dream," Lewis says.

The men commiserate about what they see as the rise of a welfare state, populated by a growing number of able-bodied adults on public assistance. Zuniga similarly sees a laziness in the government's approach. He figures if federal officials would put in the effort to look at Garcia's case, it would be obvious that he's an asset.

"They need to do their homework," he says.

Among the construction crews, this is part of what bugs them the most. They figure arresting Garcia is the easy way out, a way to pump up the number of arrests and deportations without actually going after the trouble-makers. In the end, they look at Garcia's case and see one more example of the working man getting screwed.

"I'm not a Democrat," says Jamie Tyler. "I'm not a liberal. I'm supposed to be a Republican, but I don't know about them anymore. But I know a good guy when I see one."

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