By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
MOUNT PLEASANT — Many of the 32 families impacted by an immigration raid six months ago at the town’s concrete plant are experiencing mixed feelings of fear, uncertainty and prayerful hope. Their breadwinners can’t work, can’t leave town and are worried about how they’ll pay the rent and utility bills this winter. But 24 of the families have been reunited after weeks or months of separation, and they couldn’t be more grateful to be back together.
Five of the 32 men apprehended in the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) raid have been deported to their home countries in Latin America, leaving behind families, and in one case, a teenage child now without a parent. Three men remain in detention. The families don’t want to return to their homelands because of lack of jobs, violence and criminal activity. Juan, a member of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, fears that if he returns to Mexico the criminals will think he has a lot of money and try to rob him.
He is among several immigrants who shared their stories with Bishop Thomas Zinkula. He stopped at St. Alphonsus Parish on Oct. 18 simply to listen. That’s one way he can respond to the “Share the Journey” global campaign that Pope Francis launched last year to enlist Catholics in prayer, reflection and action in response to the worldwide migration crisis. More than 65 million people have been displaced globally, including 21 million refugees.
“I was moved by the stories I heard, especially by how the ICE raid has impacted the children of immigrant families who are living here (some of whom were running around in the hall while we talked) and back home in Latin America,” Bishop Zinkula said. “The diocese is doing what it can to help the families but there are limits, both in terms of our material resources and the inadequate laws related to immigration that need to be updated.”
Francisco and Alba’s story
Alba prays that her husband, Francisco Sr., will get a work permit so that he can once again support their family of six. Their youngest child, 4-year-old Francisco Jr., plays a video game in a chair in the conference room at St. Alphonsus Parish while his parents share their story with Bishop Zinkula. Although they speak some English, Maria Mellado serves as their interpreter for this listening session.
As an undocumented immigrant apprehended in the May 9 raid, Francisco Sr. is prohibited from working. He keeps busy practicing with his band, which plays at St. Alphonsus Parish, where Alba and Francisco are members. ICE can grant work permits to immigrants who are waiting for a court hearing before an immigration judge, says Immigration Counselor Gricelda Garnica of the Diocese of Davenport’s Immigration Office. But the process can take months, and Francisco Sr.’s court hearing is nearly a year from now.
After the ICE raid at Midwest Precast Concrete Facility, Francisco spent nearly six weeks in detention before being reunited with his family. He says he left Guatemala 14 years ago for many reasons, “criminal groups,” among them.
The ICE raid continues to impact the family. “The children cried” because their father was not home. “To survive after that is hard,” Alba said. Some of the schoolmates bothered the couple’s children at school after the ICE raid. “They would say that (ICE) was going to come for them, too,” Alba said. “Then the principal talked to those children and that stopped.”
The family depends on financial help from Iowa WINs (Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors), a commission of First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant. The church serves as a distribution center to assist immigrant families impacted by the May 9 ICE raid.
Alba worries because the family will exhaust their allotted Iowa WINs funds by Nov. 1. They don’t want to apply for food stamps for their children, who are U.S. citizens, but without income, the parents believe they have no other choice. “We go day by day,” Alba says.
Rumors of an immigration raid floated through Midwest Precast Concrete for months, says Juan, a member of St. Alphonsus Parish and one of the undocumented employees apprehended when rumor became reality six months ago.
Juan’s employment at the concrete facility allowed him to support his family in Mexico. Now he’s trying to obtain a work permit with his lawyer’s assistance. Thirteen years have passed since Juan saw his family. His wife was pregnant with their youngest, a 13-year-old son who Juan has only seen on video chats.
The concrete plant worker recalled the day of the raid, when ICE agents entered the Mount Pleasant plant and arrested 32 men for alleged immigration violations. Juan was on break in the cafeteria when “someone came running to the cafeteria shouting that immigration was here.” He attempted to return to his work station, cutting wire for cement, but ICE agents stopped him. “They had dogs, too,” he said.
All of the detainees were loaded into buses and taken to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That same day, Juan was transferred with some other detainees to the Hardin County Correctional Center in Eldora, Iowa. Juan bonded out several weeks later. All together, 24 of the detainees have been released on bond.
ICE required a $10,000 bond per person paid in cash. Some families paid the $10,000. Others went through a bond re-determination hearing, which reduced their bonds to an average of $5,000, says Nicole Novak, a volunteer with the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project. The nonprofit agency provided bond money for 13 or 14 men who sought bond re-determination hearings, she says. “At this point, everyone who was eligible for an immigration bond has been bailed out.”
“My goal is to get a work permit,” Juan tells Bishop Zinkula. “But it is not easy to apply for a work permit unless they accept you as an asylum (seeker).” Asked if his faith helps sustain him, Juan responds, very much so.
None of the 24 immigrants released on bond has obtained a work permit. Iowa WINs hopes to help raise money toward the application expenses, says Tammy Shull, Iowa WINs chair. But enforcement, not employment, is the federal government’s priority. Earlier this year, ICE’s deputy director issued a directive calling for increased worksite enforcement investigations, according to the agency’s website.
“What happens if you get deported?” the bishop asks Juan, who responds, “I have faith; my faith helps me to not be desperate.”
Anna and Rene’s story
Anna, the mother of three young children, wipes tears from her eyes as she describes the difficult choice she and her family confront. Her children’s father, Rene, faces deportation to Guatemala in one month. He was not part of the May 9 ICE raid. Rene, 34, works at a turkey processing plant in West Liberty and applied for residency a year ago. He’s lived in the U.S. since his early teens and didn’t anticipate any obstacles to obtaining residency. “They said he has to go back to Guatemala,” Anna says, rocking her 1-1/2-year-old son in her arms.
Rene appealed a judge’s deportation decision but lost. Now he must appear in court in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 4. Anna does not know whether he will be deported that day. The couple has spoken with a representative from U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack’s Iowa City office, who described the family’s case as heartbreaking.
Anna doesn’t want to leave Mount Pleasant but she has no way of supporting her family without Rene’s help. “I don’t want to take my children to Guatemala,” Anna says. “There is nothing there for them.”
The immigrant families “are good people; we need them more than they need us,” interpreter Maria Mellado says. “Many companies need them.” They paid taxes and didn’t take away jobs. “We’ve got 200 jobs open now in Mount Pleasant,” said Iowa State Rep. Dave Heaton.
Families want to help themselves
Shull says Iowa WINs is helping to support all of the families impacted by the ICE raid. Parishes, church and civic organizations and individuals from throughout the U.S. have donated to Iowa WINs on behalf of the families. St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant took up a collection the Sunday after the raid that generated $11,018. “I was blown away,” says the pastor, Father Paul Connolly. Several additional collections have been taken up, for a total of nearly $20,000. But the pastor worries about donor fatigue. The Diocese of Davenport contributed $5,000 through its Catholic Charities office.
To date, Iowa WINs has raised nearly $200,000 and allotted around $4,000 for each family for living expenses and $2,000 for legal fees. Funds are running out to pay monthly housing and utility bills, Shull says. “Some of the families have reached their maximum from Iowa WINs and that’s why we are trying to do fundraising … to help them get through the cold months.”
When families were allotted funds, they were told “Know that this is from God, your community and your neighbors,” says the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “Sharing the Gospel means being the hands and feet of Christ in times of need and crisis and in times of celebration.”
“These men were all working and employed and their support of the family has disappeared,” Fr. Connolly says. “As long as they are here, how can we ignore them?”
A fundraising auction will take place Nov. 8 at First Presbyterian Church, beginning at 6 p.m. Separate fundraiser s were held Oct. 26 in Davenport and in Fairfield, Shull says. Raising money isn’t the final solution, however. “Obviously, the work permits are the answer.”
“This is the hard part; they want to work,” says Julieta, who volunteers at the food pantry. Her husband was apprehended in the May 9 ICE raid. His immigration hearing date is months away. The families “don’t have any opportunities” to support themselves, Julieta says. While they express fear and uncertainty, they strive to maintain a positive attitude, she adds. “I know God is with us. My faith is strong.” Julieta attends First Presbyterian Church, where Pastor Hegar has made it clear in his sermons that God doesn’t discriminate.
To see people with such strong faith “just lifts up our own faith,” Shull says. She hopes that more people will begin to see immigrants as individuals. “I don’t see how you can possibly hate somebody who is going through what they are going through. They are really good people.”
Iowa WINs info
Iowa WINs (Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors) is a commission of the First Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant organized in the fall of 2015 in response to the global refugee crisis. Its mission has expanded to include assisting immigrants living in the community, most recently the families impacted by the May 9 immigration raid at Midwest Precast Concrete.
To make donations on behalf of the families, go to http://www.firstpresbyonline.org/. Or by mail, send a check made out to First Presbyterian Church, 902 S. Walnut, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, 52641. Put Iowa WINs on the memo line.