The case of pastor deported to his native Honduras would have remained a local story in Iowa. But a presidential candidate is giving the case widespread attention.
During a weekend visit to the leadoff caucus state, Hillary Clinton again took up the cause of Max Villatoro, a Mennonite pastor-in-training who was deported to Honduras in March over a 16-year-old misdemeanor conviction.
“He was from all accounts, everything I’ve read and heard, a contributing member of the community. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why he was deported,” Clinton said back in July, according to the Des Moines Register. “And I would think we would have to take a hard look at cases like that and exercise more discretion.
Immigration advocates said that 41-year-old Villatoro was an upstanding member of the Iowa City community who was unjustly ripped away from his family. However, federal authorities have defended the deportation, saying it was a legitimate part of a sweep of undocumented immigrants who’d committed crimes.
Clinton said Villatoro’s case is just one of the many cases that are plagued by the country’s broken immigration system, adding that the country should “deport dangerous people, dangerous criminals … but for people who have maybe one small blemish on their record, and they’ve proven over the years since that they are contributing citizens, I think we should show them understanding and permit them and their families to stay together.”
Taking up Villatoro's case is part of Clinton's approach to tackle local issues in Iowa.
The approach is a stylistic shift from Clinton's failed 2008 presidential bid, which began poorly with a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. Advisers say this is the product of many hours spent in small house parties talking to residents, calls to close Iowa contacts and a clear sense she must do more to engage with Iowans intimately.
"She's really sitting down and talking to people, and I think that's why," said Andy McGuire, chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. She backed Clinton in 2008 but is remaining neutral this time.
Clinton commented on her efforts to make local connections at a Burlington house party this summer.
"I want to know what's actually happening, so I can come up with proposals that may actually change people's lives," she said.
Iowa-centric politicking won't sway all Iowa Democrats. While Clinton is the clear front-runner, they've demonstrated growing support for her main rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and are taking a look at former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley as well. Many liberals are frustrated with Clinton, who has avoided taking a firm position on some key trade and environmental questions.
"I see everything she's doing now as simply responding to polls," said progressive activist Brenda Brink of Huxley, who considers herself "solidly in the Bernie camp." Brink added: "I know she's impressing some people."
Since she entered the race in April, Clinton has made seven visits to the state and built a massive organizing network. Her Iowa director, Matt Paul, said she has been clear that she wants "time to have conversations with Iowans" on those visits. He said she keeps up with the local papers.
Clinton is taking a similar approach in other early-voting states — name-dropping local businesses and a winning local softball team during a recent town hall event in New Hampshire, for example. Supporters say all of this provides Clinton a way to connect and to counter criticism that she lacks warmth.
"This has always been strength for her, the one-on-one and the smaller-group stuff," said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill. "The difference is that we're leaning into it this time."
Clinton also says that talking one-on-one with people in Iowa and New Hampshire has already influenced her campaign. She says she is focusing on mental health and drug treatment because of her conversations in these states.
Perhaps the most popular Iowa reference from Clinton is to the state budget. At a Democratic dinner, Clinton drew huge applause when she criticized Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad for some recent budget vetoes on education and mental health spending. O'Malley has also been critical of Branstad on the same issues as he campaigns in the state.
"Tonight I'm adding my voice to yours," Clinton told the crowd. "Gov. Branstad, put down your veto pen. Iowa families don't need a standoff, they need solutions."
Some activists, though, want to hear more solutions from her on the big national issues of the day.
Ann Christenson is a founding member of 100Grannies.com, an environmental advocacy group in Iowa City that Clinton mentioned during a recent stop. "We were surprised and pleased" at the reference, said Christenson, 78. But she said other candidates have also been in touch and she's still not sold on Clinton.
"She needs to come out against the Keystone XL and all other pipelines, including the Bakken Pipeline," she said. She was referring to pipelines that would transport oil from Canada to Texas refineries and from North Dakota's Bakken oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to a distribution center in Illinois.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.