When Veronica Isabel Dahlberg is called a traitor, or told to go back to Mexico where she has never lived, she thinks about a boarded-up tavern here in the Cleveland suburbs that gives her hope.
In 1842, long before the Civil War, citizens in the abolitionist stronghold of Ashtabula County gathered at the Unionville Tavern to protect two runaway slaves and to chase off bounty hunters trying to capture them and ship them back to Kentucky.
“That piece of history inspires me,” Dahlberg said near the building, now grown over with vines, that once was part of the Underground Railroad. “I always refer back to it when I am made to feel like I am doing something wrong.”
Dahlberg, 51, hears those complaints a lot in her self-appointed role as protector of undocumented immigrants in northern Ohio.
Working from a cluttered living room turned campaign war room, she spends most days organizing protests, buttonholing politicians and meeting with immigration agents to persuade them to scale back deportations, especially if expulsion means breaking up families. She has helped more than two dozen undocumented immigrants get out of detention and find a way to stay in America since early 2011, records show.
“She’s like our angel,” said Dora Acosta, a Mexican-born woman whose husband, Luis Padilla, won a one-year reprieve from deportation Friday. She says he overstayed an agricultural work visa in 2010 because their 2-year-old son contracted a kidney disease.
Padilla was days from being deported last year when Dahlberg mustered volunteers from a Latino community organization she founded. Rallies, petitions and appeals to lawmakers and immigration officials in Washington persuaded authorities to grant him a one-year stay. They extended it for another year after she mobilized her followers again recently.
Most activists and organizers are fueled by their passion, said David Leopold, an immigration attorney based in Cleveland. Dahlberg “takes it to the next level.”
“She lives and breathes every case,” said Leopold, who was president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. from 2009 to 2011. “She becomes part of the family.”
In 2007, Leopold was at a conference in Reno when immigration agents raided 11 McDonald’s restaurants and detained dozens of workers.
Leopold wanted to set up workshops to inform immigrants about their rights but couldn’t arrange it. Within three hours, from her home in Ohio, Dahlberg had filled a Reno hall with 150 people.
“They were hanging from the rafters,” he recalled.
The lawyer and activist butt heads at times, and have occasionally stopped speaking to each other for months. It’s always the same problem: Dahlberg wants to charge forward and Leopold is more cautious. But they always make up.
In late March, Leopold got a call from Dahlberg. Alfredo Ramos, the Mexican father of two teenagers who are U.S. citizens, was in a car stopped by police in Mentor, Ohio. After he was questioned, Ramos was handed to Border Patrol agents, who drove from Erie, Pa., to pick him up. He had been deported in 2000 and was in the country illegally.
Leopold and Dahlberg drove to Erie in a snowstorm to find him.
When they challenged his arrest in court, protesters’ chants could be heard from outside. The judge ordered Ramos released because he wasn’t arrested in Pennsylvania, as the prosecutor claimed. Immigration officials later granted Ramos a stay from deportation to avoid separating him from his children.
Thousands of immigrant families, mostly from central Mexico, have settled in northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania in recent decades to work in the nurseries and rubber and metal factories.
Most arrived on temporary work visas. When drug violence increased back home, many stayed after their visas expired and settled down in the blue-collar towns that line the southern shore of Lake Erie.
Dahlberg was born here. Her father was an engineer from Hungary and met her mother on a business trip to Mexico. Their daughter thought she might be a punk radio DJ, or a local reporter. Her mother called her cabeza dura, hard head, for her stubbornness.
In 2007, a series of local immigration raids turned the union organizer and divorced mother of three into an activist. Immigration agents rounded up foreign workers in businesses as part of a national crackdown called Operation Return to Sender, begun during the George W. Bush administration.
She organized protests, and immigration authorities soon agreed to tell families where their loved ones were being held. She was hailed as a hero.
Elizabeth Perez, a former Marine Corps drill instructor, met Dahlberg when Perez was trying to help her husband, Marcos, return to Ohio from Mexico to stay with her and their two toddlers. He was deported in 2010 after being pulled over for running a red light and driving without a license. Because he had misdemeanor crimes on his record and was in the country illegally, he was barred from returning to America for 10 years.
Every immigration attorney Perez consulted told her she was out of luck. But not Dahlberg.
“She was like, ‘So? That is no reason for him to be away from his kids. I’m going to help you get him back,’” Perez recalled.
Dahlberg found a lawyer who is trying to get the misdemeanor charges expunged and to seek a waiver to allow Perez’s husband to return.
Dahlberg sometimes thinks about moving away, or working in Washington for a national Latino organization. But she sees herself as the only guardian for people like Perez.
“If I left there would be unnecessary deportations, unnecessary family separations,” she said.