RIDGEWAY, IOWA and SALVATIERRA, MEXICO — In an apartment off a rural Iowa highway, Yanet Santos Gómez, 36, rises from sleep just before noon. This is her second wake-up of the day. She had milked cows earlier and will return to the barns again for evening duties, sleeping between her split shift.

Right now, though, she wants to call her kids, who just got home from school in Mexico.

For nearly three years, she's been parenting her three children through these video calls.

Her 11-year-old daughter, Naomi, pops onto the small screen, showing off new makeup sponges. Gómez gently asks: Would she experiment with the blushes and brushes at school the next day?

Makeup. A sign to many parents of a child's impending adolescence. Gómez knows she may not be there for Naomi's teen years.

Naomi was 8 when Gómez last hugged her before departing for America. Gómez — along with hundreds of others from Salvatierra — had agreed to a lucrative yearslong contract on an H-2B visa, working for HyLife, a Canada-based pork processor, at its plant in Windom, Minn.

The economic opportunity for Gómez and many of the other workers came at great personal cost, including heartsickness over family left behind.

Less than two years into the contract, HyLife Windom went bust. All 1,000 workers lost their jobs, including Gómez. Over the last year since the plant's closure, the hundreds of guest workers have shouldered economic burdens, either seeking new employment in the U.S. or back home in Mexico. Many have had to navigate murky rules to stay in the U.S. legally on work permits and new visas.

All of this while weighing the toll on their families. Many are still spread out over national boundaries. Others were torn from Windom schools.

The phone calls continue — from Salvatierra to Iowa, from Worthington, Minn., to Texas. Families seeking connection despite the distance.

"I'm scared to [go back]," Gómez said after setting down the phone. "If we did, we'd go back to a different place."

Yanet Gómez, right, earns $12 an hour working at a dairy operation in Iowa. She earned more than twice that at the pork plant in Windom, Minn.

Life after HyLife

America's food system runs largely on the backs of immigrants and guest workers.

But the flight of visa holders from the collapsed plant in Windom revealed a gap in the federal laws governing these guest-worker programs: What happens to workers when the company sponsoring them goes bust?

"The issue is the structure of these [guest-worker] programs," said Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc. "You're tying these workers to particular employers. There's an imbalance of power."

For many families, the closure of the plant in Windom has left them with no, or limited, legal status in the U.S., delaying their reunification with children back in Mexico.

Ana Medina came to Windom after a long bus ride in October 2021. She said her son cried when she left their home in Mexico.

"I told him I was coming for a better future," Medina said.

Ana Medina has been collecting toys in hopes of getting them to her children in Mexico. Since the Windom plant closed, she has moved several times to find work.

Her debts had mounted in Salvatierra, between paying for her son's care and a cemetery plot for her mother. While it was painful to leave him, she understood the transaction. At the HyLife plant in Windom, she could make $20 an hour. All of her wages would be sent back to her son, living with a guardian in Salvatierra.

"The factory pays the most," Medina said. "It's the best pay in all of Minnesota."

But when the plant closed, she found work taking soil samples on southern Minnesota farms. Then she got a job at the JBS pork slaughterhouse in Worthington.

By the spring of 2024, she'd moved to Austin, Texas. Had HyLife stayed open, Medina would probably have been able to move back home with her son by now.

Rocío Gómez Gómez, 56, cries as she talks about Yanet. She understands why her daughter went to the U.S. for work: "Yanet is a person who likes to fight for her family." But they miss her.

'A bucket of cold water'

On the outskirts of Salvatierra, amid small brick houses laced by narrow dirt roads, Gómez's children live with their grandmother. On a day earlier this spring, the three children sit on a couch near their grandmother, who watches them carefully.

"The truth is that from the moment she told us that she was going to the United States," said her eldest son, Luis Jaime Morales Santos, 21, "it was like a bucket of cold water [poured on us] because we were used to being with our mother."

Gómez's mother, Rocío Gómez Gómez, 56, has raised the kids in her daughter's absence. Her own husband, a bricklayer, hadn't worked in a month. And she knows the city is violent. Just weeks earlier, in April, a mayoral candidate in neighboring Celaya was leaving a market in broad daylight when she was killed by gunmen.

In other words, she understands why her daughter went to the U.S. for work.

"Yanet is a person who likes to fight for her family," Rocío said. Still, the absence is difficult for her grandchildren: "It's sadness."

Out her front door, Rocío sees the low brick house her daughter is in the process of buying. It's unclear whether her daughter will ever return to live there.

She raises her hands. "I told my daughter, 'Put everything in God's hands. He is the one who is going to open doors for you because you are in a country that is not your country.'"

Yanet Gómez's three children walk from the property she is buying in Salvatierra back to their grandmother's house, where they live. It's unclear whether Gómez will ever return to live there.

The workers' children

Amid a labor shortage in 2023, the State Department issued more than 10 million nonimmigrant visas, including for foreigners to work in the U.S. — the most in nearly a decade. As U.S. employers enlist these workers for their hotels and factories, there's been a growing concern over worker mistreatment and the toll of long-term family separations.

Worthington immigration lawyer Erin Schutte Wadzinski processed 75 applications for deferred action from former HyLife workers a year ago. Deferred action is a legal decision to not deport someone. Federal authorities grant these dispensations when workers are victims of a crime. In this case, Minnesota authorities say HyLife illegally withheld wages.

Wadzinski said many of these workers feel stuck in the U.S. as they look back on a home overrun by cartel violence.

"Many of them have sensed displacement since their arrival in 2021," Wadzinski said. "And I think many of them sense that the region has become more dangerous than when they left."

Many others, the attorney said, have had children in the U.S.

When Salvatierra native Sara Hernandez lost her job at the Windom plant, she had two teenage daughters enrolled at Windom's public school.

"They liked it," Hernandez said. She briefly thought about returning to Mexico without her daughters, who were born in Florida and are U.S. citizens. But she decided against it when one daughter expressed anxiety. "My daughter told me, 'I can't be left alone.'"

So they returned to Salvatierra together.

At the dairy where she works in Ridgeway, Iowa, Yanet Gómez puts her youngest daughter down for a nap. Her older children have never met their little sister.

American-born babies

At the foot of the television in Gómez's apartment, which she and her partner rent from their dairy-farmer employer, is a pile of toys and pink stuffed animals. Gómez was among the first wave of H-2B workers from Mexico to arrive by bus in Windom in the fall of 2021. Four months after arriving, she passed out on the line.

"I was working on the line," Gómez said, "And all of a sudden I felt really faint, and I saw pure black."

Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant.

Gómez gave birth to a baby girl in the summer of 2022, taking eight weeks off from work. She returned to HyLife in the fall, working mainly in the "cheek area" — slicing hogs from throat to neck. When news of Windom's closing spread, she panicked. She had only a month more of paychecks and three children to feed in Mexico, and now a fourth in Minnesota.

Gómez went to HR for help. She didn't want to take a baby on a three-day bus ride back to Mexico.

The conversation was far from helpful.

"'No one here told you to have children,'" Gómez said the HR officer told her. The company had brought her here, but once they went bankrupt, they didn't secure new visas or offer advice on legal pathways for workers to stay in the U.S.

Naomi, 11, begins to cry as she thinks about her mother. Her brothers comfort her. "I miss her so much," Naomi said. "I need her."

A Midwest-Mexico pipeline

Sources who spoke to the Star Tribune described an unprecedented effort by state and federal officials to find legal avenues for HyLife workers to remain in the country. Many stayed under new guidance from the Biden administration that allows guest workers who have been the victims of an alleged crime, such as wage theft, to apply for legal protection from deportation.

By the time the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry wrote to federal authorities about a wage theft investigation at HyLife, "many were on their way to Mexico," Wadzinski said. "For so many H-2B workers, had it come out earlier, it would've probably resulted in more former HyLife workers choosing to remain in the United States."

Gómez didn't leave. Instead, she found work milking cows in Iowa for $12 an hour. But there's a catch: She would lose her deferred action status if she left the U.S. to visit her older children. And they can't come visit her without visas.

In Salvatierra, three siblings sit on a couch in their grandmother's home. The youngest, Naomi, wears a pink bow. When asked about her mother, she wipes tears from her eyes, leaning into her 18-year-old brother, Abimael.

"I miss her so much," Naomi said. "I need her."

It's a short walk to their mother's property, across a rickety plank that straddles a dry creek bed.

"We haven't been able to meet our little sister," Luis Jaime says as they walk along the dirt path. "We don't have the possibility of going there ourselves."

He puts his arm around Naomi. The children want their mom. She wants the best for her children. This is her best.

An H-2B employer must attest to federal officials that it can't find Americans willing to do the job. "I would cry when I first started working [at the dairy] because it stunk," says Yanet Gómez. "Now I'm used to it, and I don't think other people would do this."

An uncertain future in Iowa

Parents of a U.S. citizen may apply for their own citizenship when the child is 21. Gómez's baby is not yet 2. Her work permit expires in a year, though she can reapply.

When Gómez reaches the barn for evening milking, the black-and-white cows lumber into the parlor.

"Cows are not me," Gómez says with an eye roll. "I didn't think I would ever be able to work at a place like this. I'm even afraid of chickens."

Sometimes the animals kick. They're frighteningly tall. But she knows why she does it.

"My paycheck is for my kids," says Gómez, who last saw her children in person almost three years ago. "Everything is for my kids."

She puts on gloves and dabs an udder with disinfectant before hooking up the milking machine.

Once the motor hums, Gómez pulls up a photo on her phone of her nearly 2-year-old daughter. The girl may grow up in the Midwest, hearing about her siblings living in a place called Salvatierra. She'll hear about the cathedrals, the mountains. Maybe someday, she'll visit.

On the parlor's windowsill sits a bag of red habas bean snacks sent by her grandmother. Like so much else, they are from a separate world.

Star Tribune staff photographer Elizabeth Flores provided translation for interviews in Spanish.


Reporting Christopher Vondracek and Elizabeth Flores

Photography Elizabeth Flores and Katie Rausch

Editing Kristen Leigh Painter

Copy editing Catherine Preus

Design Bryan Brussee and Michiela Thuman

Graphics Jake Steinberg and CJ Sinner