A young immigrant’s budding success story: Legal guardianship paved the way

Barb Arland-Fye
Jonathan Santos, an immigrant from El Salvador, talks with his Iowa “mom” Lynn Ellsworth at her home in Mount Pleasant. Lynn served as Jonathan’s legal guardian until he turned 21 so that he could apply for special immigration status based on the reason he fled from his homeland.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Jonathan Santos was an anxious teenager facing deportation after immigration authorities raided the Mount Pleasant cement plant where he and around 45 other Hispanic employees were working on May 9, 2018. Three years later, he is a confident young man working as a first-shift supervisor at a distribution center in Mount Pleasant with dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen.

His journey to citizenship is possible, in part, because IowaWINs volunteer Lynn Ellsworth said yes to serving as his legal guardian until he turned 21. For Jonathan, Lynn has become a second mom he turns to for advice and she is as proud of him as if he were her own child.

Their bond is rooted in compassion, following their first encounter at First Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, a month after the U.S. Customs and Enforcement (ICE) raid. Lynn was volunteering at the food pantry that IowaWINs (Iowa Wel­comes Immigrant Neighbors) opened in the church to assist the immigrant families whose breadwinners had been detained in the raid. The Diocese of Davenport is a supporter of IowaWINs, a commission of First Presbyterian Church.


“None of the detainees was subsequently charged with crimes other than the few who had previously been deported and who had unlawfully returned to the U.S. Those men were deported for the second time,” Tammy Shull reported in the e-newsletter of the IowaWINs commission, which she chairs.

Jonathan arrived in Texas in August 2017 as an unaccompanied 17-year-old from El Salvador, seeking to escape the notorious gangs in his homeland. “It was dangerous down there. I had seen problems with gangs. If you didn’t join, they would kill you. There were not a lot of options.” His parents, who were divorced, did not object to his decision to leave. It was a choice between “have me over here or have me in the cemetery,” Jonathan said.

He called immigration authorities after reaching Texas and asked for asylum before being taken to a juvenile detention center, where he said he was treated well before he left for Iowa to live with his sister in Mount Pleasant. He entered high school in October 2017 but struggled because of the language barrier and differences in education systems.

After dropping out of high school, he went to work at the cement factory, working long hours in a physically demanding job but also picking up English-speaking skills. On the day of the raid, May 9, 2018, Jonathan was outside the lunchroom when he saw a man running toward the lunchroom. Then he spotted uniformed officers and fled from the building. An officer outside ordered him to stop, and he did. “My first thought was, ‘I’m going home. I’m done.’”

He and some of the other men were taken in vans to Cedar Rapids for processing and then to Eldora to the county jail where he spent 23 days, not knowing when he might be released. “For the first three days, you feel like you’ll break down,” he said.

Jonathan had a video conference with a judge in Omaha who listened to the teen’s story and lowered his bond from $10,000 to $6,000. “They already had my case,” he said. The Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project (now Prairielands Freedom Fund) paid his bond, and he was released from jail. He returned to Mount Pleasant and worked with an attorney to determine what he needed to do next.

He and his sister were visiting the IowaWINs food pantry where volunteer Julieta Reza introduced the siblings to Lynn. She said, “Jonathan needs a legal guardian,” Lynn recalls. “I said I would have to know what that means and get to know Jonathan a little bit, but somehow I knew I was going to do it. I also knew it was prudent to learn more about what that would mean to be a legal guardian.”

Legal guardianship allows young immigrants up to age 21 to apply for Special Juvenile Immi­gration Status (SJIS) if they have been abused or neglected by their parents or face violence if they return to their home country.

“We exchanged phone numbers and the next week Jonathan texted me and asked if I could meet with him. They met, along with Ju­lie­ta and Jona­th­an’s sister, Kar­ina, and Lynn’s husband, Tom. Ju­lieta interpreted. “We just clicked,” Lynn said.

She completed the legal paperwork to become Jonathan’s guardian and then encouraged him to return to high school. A friend who teaches English as a second language at the school told her Jonathan was a smart but stubborn student. Eligibility for special immigration status required him to return to school and complete his education. He earned his high school diploma in January 2020 at an alternative high school with the help of dedicated teachers and Lynn’s encouragement.

“When we went to register him for school, I remember saying, ‘I never had a son before’ and he started calling me ‘Mom.’ That thrilled me.” “She’s just like my mom. She cares so much about me,” Jonathan said. “He’ll message me and say, ‘How are you doing, Mom?’”

He continued to live with his sister (and still does), but also got together regularly with Lynn and Tom. The three enjoyed playing board games. They’ve become so comfortable that Jonathan enjoys teasing Tom during their games. Tom returned the favor, teasing Jonathan during his and Lynn’s interview with The Catholic Messenger.

Almost a year and a half after the ICE raid, Jonathan received his work permit and Social Security card, which allowed him to get a driver’s license and a job. Before that happened, IowaWINs helped pay his monthly expenses. Now self-supporting, he works full time at the distribution center where he learned to operate a forklift, among other skills. “I support my family back home,” says Jonathan, who calls his mother weekly.

Recently, he received approval of his special immigration status application. His asylum petition is pending, but he hopes to be granted asylum status as well. In time, he anticipates becoming a permanent resident and ultimately, a U.S. citizen.

Jonathan still turns to his Iowa mom for advice. “He ran into a deer and called me about that,” Lynn said. Another time, after he told her about getting his vehicle stuck in the mud, she responded, “You are now officially an Iowan since you have hit a deer and got stuck in the mud!”

He is thankful for IowaWINs. “They helped me a lot,” he said. Without IowaWINs, “You wouldn’t have had me,” Lynn points out, smiling. “He’s a good person,” Lynn says of Jonathan. “He works hard; he’s done all the right things.”

About Iowa WINs

IowaWINs (Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors) is a commission of First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant that formed in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Three years later, IowaWINs became the “epicenter of the response to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid in Mount Pleasant, which left the families of 32 men without their primary breadwinners,” according to the IowaWINs website (iowawins.net).

Contributions of food, supplies and financial funding arrived to help the suffering families. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Catholic Diocese of Davenport have been major partners with IowaWINs since the raid.

The organization set up accounts for each family and for two years helped with rent, utilities and phone expenses while the men were unable to work. Most of the men were released from county jails after a month or more in detention but were unable to work until obtaining work permits, which paved the way for Social Security cards and employment. That process took more than a year for many. Some men have still not received work permits.

Tammy Shull, who chairs the IowaWINs commission, said “the IowaWINs community and the immigrant community have built relationships and trust. There have been celebrations and get-togethers.” Immigrant families are growing their own produce in the Fellowship Cup community garden plots and in home gardens with support from IowaWINs’ Nutrimos program focused on community gardening, education and opportunities to support community development among these families.

As of the third anniversary on May 9, most of the men impacted by the ICE raid have jobs and can support their families. The pandemic created additional challenges for families who remained in Mount Pleasant after their loved ones were deported.

Some are still awaiting immigration hearings. “In the meantime, these families pay taxes and contribute to our local economy by buying goods and services,” Shull said.

If you would like to contribute to IowaWINs, visit the IowaWINs website (iowawins.net) or write to:
Iowa WINs (Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors)
A Commission of the First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant
902 S. Walnut, Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641

Legal guardianship for immigrant minors

As the Biden Administration begins processing unaccompanied youths at the border, “the importance of finding people willing to serve as legal guardians will be very important,” says Tammy Shull, who chairs IowaWINs (Iowa Wel­comes Immigrant Neigh­bors) in Mount Pleasant. “Many of the children at the border have family members that they could be placed with for housing and care but they still need legal guardians with U.S. citizenship.”

Usually, unaccompanied minors go to the border patrol and ask for asylum. They have a right to an immigration hearing with a judge to determine if they are eligible for asylum, Shull said.

However, the backlog of cases and shortage of judges results in a years-long wait for immigration hearings. After the asylum case is filed, youths who are of age to work may apply for a work permit after six months, which typically takes another six months or more to obtain. Furthermore, they have to wait to work until their Social Security card arrives. Work permits are renewed every two years.

The youths also may be eligible to apply for Special Juvenile Immigration Status (SJIS) if they are younger than 21 at the time of application and have been abused or neglected by their parents or face violence if they return to their home country. SJIS classification requires legal guardianship.

The date of the application for SJIS classification “holds” your place in line, Shull said. For May of 2021, the government is processing applications received on or before 9/1/2018. There is no predicting how quickly visas become available, she added. Once a visa becomes available, the petitioner can apply for permanent residency. That takes another 18 to 24 months for approval.

An SJIS legal guardianship is not financial. It provides support for the ward in three main areas: health, education and legal. It may be a partial parental substitution; it is not an actual parent. Guardianships vary widely in relationships and intensity. Many are not very “hands on,” Shull said. SJIS guardianship can terminate after the ward is 18 without affecting SJIS status.

For more information, visit https://www.uscis. gov/working-in-the-united-states/permanent-workers/employment-based-immigration-fourth-preference-eb-4/special-immigrant-juveniles

For more information on getting involved with helping unaccompanied immigrant children, sign up for a Catholic Charities webinar scheduled May 24 from noon to 1 p.m. Register at: https://forms. gle/Fmb3ypRaJ84mQoSG7

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