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LOGAN - Days after immigration agents stormed a Swift & Co. meat processing plant in Hyrum, a Latino child named Diana wrote a letter to Santa.

The second-grader, who had learned that an aunt and uncle had been snatched from work just two weeks before Christmas, put her thoughts to a poem.

She began simply, "Hope for Santa Claus."

The words that followed etched themselves in the minds of her teachers, describing poignantly the heartache that pains Cache Valley's Latino community this year as they celebrate Christmas without husbands, wives and children.

"Even though we are so poor we have hope," Diana wrote. "Even though we are sad we have hope. Even though we lost our home we have hope. Even though we have ragged cloth[es] we have hope. Even though we have no shoes we have hope. Even though we have no tree, we have hope for Santa."

Diana didn't go without gifts, but some of her friends did. Christmas trees went bare as Latino families clung to final paychecks to pay rent, bills and possibly gasoline for a one-way trip to Mexico.

"I'm not going to celebrate," said Estrella Alvarado, who lost her husband, mother and sister to the Swift raid. "I don't have my family."

Instead, she cares for her sister's two children and listens as the youngest, who was breast-feeding, cries at night for his mother.

Federal agents swept into meat processing plants in six states Dec. 12, targeting undocumented immigrants who had assumed the identities of U.S. citizens to gain their employment. They detained an estimated 154 people at the Hyrum plant, accusing them of immigration violations and in some cases identity theft.

Some Latinos face criminal charges. Others face deportation.

Despite claims by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials that agents did not separate both parents from their children during the raid, The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed three such cases at Bridger Elementary in Logan.

Among those workers were Javier Estrada and Guadalupe Cervantes, whose three children were left parentless after the raid. Cervantes' sister, Maria Ortiz, now must care for them until she can get them across the Mexican border.

Ortiz remembers vividly the frantic phone call from her sister that preceded the raid.

"We're surrounded," the woman cried. "Immigration is here."

Since then, Ortiz has watched seven children on her own. The oldest is 9 years old, making her home a "casa loca."

While her brother-in-law and sister had meant to spend their paychecks on Christmas gifts the week they were detained, the money now must pay for moving to Mexico in early January. Ortiz said money was too tight to buy a single gift this Christmas.

Indeed, as of early Saturday afternoon, Ortiz had nothing beneath her tree aside from a tiny nativity scene and ceramic Santa Claus. She dismissed the emptiness, however, saying all she wanted for Christmas was her family reunited.

Ortiz had lost more than a brother-in-law and sister. Her husband had been deported a month earlier, missing an appointment for a family portrait. The photo of Ortiz, her four children and her sister's family now hangs on her North Logan wall without him.

The week of the raid, Ortiz had one-way plane tickets to Mexico. Now, as the sole caretaker of her sister's children, she plans to drive.

Still, Ortiz smiles.

"If I don't smile, then I'll cry," she said through an interpreter.

"And I don't want to cry."

Cash in Cache

As night fell Saturday, people streamed into St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hyde Park toting remote-control cars, DVDs, a toy sewing machine and even an X-box game system. Someone had parked a motorboat outside.

The church was to be the hub of a pre-Christmas auction and garage sale to raise money for Latino families who can't pay bills or moving expenses on their own.

Rolando Murillo, who organized the event as a representative of the Latin American Cultural and Educational Association (ACELA), called it an "emergency relief effort" to provide what Sub for Santa programs could not.

"Different organizations have been able to cover the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing," he said. "What the people need desperately is cash."

Among the contributors was Peggy Chanson, who delivered an armful of items from the Multi-Cultural Center of Cache Valley. Her eyes grew wet as she spoke of the raid, saying it had profoundly impacted the community, regardless of skin color.

"It feels like people have come in and taken our families apart," she said. "We know we can't put them back together, but we are trying to help them."

Donations abounded Saturday night, but attendance was sparse as organizers worked toward their goal of raising $1,000 for each person detained. The auction generated about $2,800.

"It is more than zero," Murillo said.

ACELA officials plan to conduct at least two more fundraisers in Cache Valley over the next two weekends. However, they say they will rely heavily on private donations into a Wells Fargo account - No. 2016704831 - that is earmarked for helping displaced Latino families. Another fund, created by the Multi-Cultural Center, is available at the USU Charter Credit Union under the name 12/12 Immigration Relief Fund.

"We can't take care of the real tragedy," Murillo said. "But everybody is doing something to try to alleviate it."

A question of law

Criminal charges have been filed in federal court against 15 Mexican nationals who reportedly used Social Security numbers and other documents to assume the identities of U.S. citizens to get work. All them worked at the Swift plant in Hyrum.

Prosecutors also have filed state charges, such as forgery, against 22 other employees and are considering similar charges against 57 more.

The prosecutions are the culmination of a 10-month identity theft investigation that targeted Swift operations in Cactus, Texas; Grand Island, Neb.; Marshalltown, Iowa; Worthington, Minn.; and company headquarters in Greeley, Colo. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described it as one of the nation's largest work site enforcement actions.

Few dispute that the detained Latino workers were in the country illegally, but family members insisted Saturday that their loved ones are not criminals. They came to the country simply to make a living.

"We didn't have any other option," said Alvarado through an interpreter. "We needed to work."

Now, the children of those workers are left to wonder why their mom or dad isn't coming home. They are left to wonder what will happen to them - a feeling that has manifested itself in elementary schools across the valley, teachers say.

Children refused to go outside for recess at Adams Elementary, fearing that they might be snatched, an aide said. Some students didn't come back to school at all.

At Bridger Elementary, children wouldn't eat school lunch. Their tummies hurt, a teacher said.

Janey Stoddard teaches first grade at Bridger, which had almost two dozen students affected by the raid. She remembers asking one of her tiny Latino students how she was doing. The child responded that she was OK, then turned back and said, "Ms. Stoddard, I'm not doing OK."

The girl began to cry and asked, "Am I ever going to see my mom again?"

While Stoddard understands the need for immigration enforcement, she said the Swift raid has unsettled many of Cache Valley's children, who don't understand why their family members were taken away.

"People are so intelligent in America," she said. "You would think we could come up with a better way than terrorizing families."

Seeking spiritual relief

Latino families gathered on Christmas Eve for Mass, filling the cavernous St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church for comfort as much as for a message about the virgin Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth.

The Rev. Clarence J. Sandoval, dressed in purple robes, urged his congregation of nearly 100 Latinos to do as Mary and visit those "brothers and sisters" who are needy and afraid. He told them that the Holy Spirit would work through them.

Latinos have flocked to the church in the weeks since the raid, seeking out help from an institution they trust. Sandoval has visited some followers at home; many fear to venture outside.

Sandoval declined to comment on whether federal agents had acted justly in raiding the Swift plant this month. He said he has other things to worry about.

"I don't have time to deal with the whole aspect of whether it is morally right or wrong," he said. "I need to take care of the people who are here."

Christmas cheer

The Ortiz family wasn't forgotten this Christmas. Minutes after talking with The Tribune on Saturday, there came a knock at the door.

Sub for Santa workers hurried inside, plopped more than a dozen presents beneath her scanty tree and wished her a merry Christmas before disappearing to their next home. For a moment, there came untroubled smiles.

Similar stories have unfolded across the valley this weekend as churches and charities spread some unexpected cheer to needy families.

"There is no way we can make up in material objects the suffering these families are going through," said Heather Albee-Scott, a member of the Multi-Cultural Center's board of directors. "But we are trying to keep Christmas as normal as it could have been."