By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Bishop Thomas Zinkula has asked the Homeland Security Chief in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to release three Guatemalan immigrant detainees because the COVID-19 pandemic “places immigrants being detained in a very vulnerable situation.”
The bishop said he chose to take action after reading about the immigrants’ situation in secular media and through emails from the Iowa City Catholic Worker, advocating on behalf of the men and their families.
The wives of two of the men described the traumatic experience of their husbands’ separate arrests during a May 6 news conference in Cedar Rapids. All three men were arrested March 4 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other law officers.
Jose Cerillo and Jacinto Cuyuch-Brito are being held in Linn County Jail and Juan Daniel Cuyuch-Brito was moved to Freeborn Adult Detention Center in Minnesota, said David Goodner of the Iowa City Catholic Worker.
Rosa, the wife of Jacinto Cuyuch-Brito, is living at the Catholic Worker House with her infant son, Pedro, because without the family’s breadwinner she can’t pay rent.
Her husband and Juan Cuyuch-Brito are brothers. Jose Cerillo is her brother-in-law. All three men were charged with using false work visas and social security numbers. Jose was also charged with re-entry into the U.S. after less than 10 years since a prior removal, Goodner said.
“People have to understand that undocumented immigrants using false work visas and social security numbers do so because they want to work and support their families. They are the essential workers on our farms and in meatpacking plants and other jobs,” Goodner said.
During the news conference, Jose’s wife, Juana, said that around 6:45 a.m. on March 4 her husband got up to see who was knocking at the door of their apartment in Cedar Rapids. ICE and other officers broke down the door to enter, Juana said, speaking in Spanish. Her interpreter was Emily Sinnwell of the Iowa City Catholic Worker. Nine officers were involved in the raid. Officers searched through all of Juana and Jose’s clothes, Juana said. She was questioned at length and officers obtained information about her brothers (Jacinto and Juan) through her phone contacts.
During questioning that lasted 2-½ hours, Juana was not allowed to use the bathroom. Her 9-year-old daughter was in the apartment with her. Juana worries about her husband’s health in jail because he has a serious heart condition. She choked up as she asked for mercy at the recorded news conference. “Help Jose and my brothers to get out. … If Jose gets sick and dies, we will never see each other again.”
Rosa, Juana’s sister-in-law, also speaking in Spanish, said her husband received a phone call from his sister around 9:30 a.m. that officers were looking for him. “I told him not to go,” she said as Sinnwell interpreted. But he chose to meet the officers outside the couple’s home in Marion so that they would not come in and scare the baby. After he had been taken, “I felt very alone. I was by myself with my two-month old baby,” Rosa said. Her husband’s absence “has affected me a lot, and my baby.” She also pleaded for her husband’s release. “I need him alive and well.”
Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said during the news conference, “The ICE raids that happened and continue to happen are an abomination. Surely there are better uses for our taxpayer dollars than surveilling hardworking folks in our neighborhoods and carrying out traumatic raids on their homes.” He added, “The three individuals we’re advocating for are low-level, non-violent offenders. They were never a threat to society. … They are hardworking individuals who like most Americans, are seeking to provide a better life for their families.”
“ICE likes to separate families. We have a lot of single moms who have been left behind,” Sinnwell said in response to a question at the news conference. Nine refugees — two men, four women and three children — live at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, which Sinnwell and Goodner co-founded.
Iowa City Catholic Worker and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement are advocating for release of the three Guatemalan detainees under the banner of the social media campaign #Free Them All 4 Public Health. The New York-based organization states “a plan to immediately release people from jail, prison and immigration detention to their chosen homes and communities and to prevent people from being incarcerated is the best possible protection against the deadly spread of COVID-19…”
Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice reported that as of April 29, “at least 14,513 people in prisons across our country had tested positive for coronavirus, and 218 inmates had died of the illness.” COVID-19 “reminds us that every person’s wellness depends on the health of everyone else.”
Bishop Zinkula, in his letter to Michael Hindman, Homeland Security Chief, Cedar Rapids Office, said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “accepts the legitimate role of the U.S. government in enforcing immigration laws. However, the USCCB believes that in the process of enforcing those laws, the U.S. Government must protect the human rights and dignity of all migrants, giving particular consideration to the most vulnerable of those migrants. This has been a long held position. The present COVID-19 pandemic places immigrants being detained in a very vulnerable situation.”
Bishop Zinkula asked that upon review, “these three individuals will be released back to their homes and families as they await their next court proceeding. Providing less restrictive sanctions will reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus for these three nonviolent individuals, those who are in jail for legitimate public safety reasons, and jail staff continuing their frontline essential public safety work.”
In closing, the bishop said, “Ever mindful of the Lord’s presence in our midst, and of my responsibility for the least among us, I thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this request.” He is still waiting for a response.