It’s ‘Eerily Quiet’ At This Kansas City Nonprofit For Immigrants After The CEO Invited ICE
Mattie Rhodes, a nonprofit that provides mental health and other services to Kansas City's immigrant communities, apologized earlier this month for inviting Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to a community meeting in August.
“After receiving feedback from both staff and the public, we know we made a mistake by asking an ICE spokesperson to be a part of the meeting of community organization leaders. At the very least we should have announced ICE would be there,” the organization said in a statement on Oct. 1.
But members of the community appear to be wary of using the organization's services, and calls and visits have gone down, some staffers say.
The tensions arose after longtime Mattie Rhodes CEO John Fierro called a meeting to address the violent ICE arrest of undocumented immigrant Florencio Millan on July 22. Millan’s arrest sparked widespread outrage after a live-stream video on Facebook showed an ICE agent smashing his car window and dragging him out, with Kansas City police on scene to assist. Millan was deported two days later.
The meeting agenda and guest list emailed to those who were invited had no indication that representatives from ICE would be present.
Trinidad Raj Molina, program coordinator for Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation (AIRR), said the room fell silent after the ICE representatives introduced themselves.
“Anyone who’s seriously in the work of immigration law or immigration advocacy of any kind knows it’s at a point where the situation is already out of control and there’s not much point in dialogue. What we need are better policies and protections for immigrant rights,” Molina said.
More than a month after the meeting, Fierro personally apologized in a Facebook comment, writing that he took full responsibility for inviting ICE and that he did so to increase his “own understanding” of their policies.
But several employees, who spoke to KCUR under the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, said they fear that the damage has already been done.
“It’s been eerily quiet,” one employee said. “People are afraid to come and seek our services. Normally people come in, there are walk-ins, the phones are ringing. But people are not coming.”
Fierro told KCUR he's seen "nothing out of the ordinary."
"Our community partners and participants are the foundation of our success and I am confident that Mattie Rhodes’ success will continue," he said. "In my tenure of over 20 years, we have become nationally accredited; created over 40 new jobs; and have established a new community hub of social and economic services for residents of Historic Northeast."
Multiple staff members told KCUR they were not invited to the meeting and were not informed ICE would be present. The day of the meeting, one employee said, a client who is undocumented saw several police patrol cars in the parking lot from a window and asked for an explanation.
“This is not about hurt feelings, it’s about betrayal,” that staff member said of Fierro. “The trust that he has broken within the community, with our participants, with his own staff. We didn’t even know that ICE would be there. People could have been detained. Families could have been separated.”
“When people ask us, ‘Is Mattie Rhodes safe?’ — how can we honestly say yes? We don’t know,” said another employee.
Calls for Fierro’s resignation began on social media almost immediately after the August meeting. The Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance formally joined the call a few weeks ago and started circulating a petition that has since collected nearly 500 signatures.
“Although we acknowledge that Mr. Fierro has expressed regret and wishes to advance to the next steps to put this behind him,” the organization's open letter read, “he has shown us that his primary intent is to take a defensive posture to the community and staff feedback.”
Citing his earlier apology, Fierro told KCUR he "will continue to work with community members to learn from the situation."
But at least five staff members told KCUR they feel there is a lack of accountability and transparency under Fierro’s leadership, which they feel is creating a “toxic work environment.”
One former employee who held a leadership position at Mattie Rhodes told KCUR they left because of Fierro.
“This is a pattern of behavior that has gone on for years and years. This doesn’t come as a shock to me,” they said.
Longtime community and immigrant rights advocate Celia Calderon Ruiz said she’s been referring families to Mattie Rhodes for the past two decades for services such as after-school programs, behavioral health counseling, or help for survivors of domestic violence.
“The staff at Mattie Rhodes does an amazing job. And it is so unfortunate and damaging that a CEO with 20 years experience and leadership does not know the community he serves, and that he doesn’t know them to the point where he will put them in dangerous situations,” she said.