By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
CEDAR RAPIDS — Bishop Thomas Zinkula was among 18 people who packed the reception area of a federal facility here, keeping vigil as a refugee checked in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers the day before Thanksgiving.
Alejandro Guzman, the 29-year-old Mexican refugee, is not Catholic but gave thanks for the presence of Bishop Zinkula and the others participating in the Catholic Day of Action to Protect Refugee Families and Children. The Iowa City Catholic Worker, Guzman’s sponsor, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, organized the event.
“We’re all together. We’re in solidarity. One human family,” the bishop said during a roundtable discussion at the Catholic Worker House in Iowa City that preceded the check-in with ICE officers in Cedar Rapids. Nine refugees currently live at the Catholic Worker House, a house of hospitality refugees like Guzman sought out by word of mouth.
Bishop Zinkula looks to Pope Francis as his guide to go out to the peripheries to encounter other people. The bishop chose to witness the experience of a refugee at an ICE check-in. Accompanying Guzman “Is an opportunity to practice our Catholic Christian faith to love our neighbor and to show support along the way,” the bishop told the refugees, Catholic Worker volunteers, journalists and others.
The bishop listened intently as refugees shared their stories one by one. Most fled violence, crime and poverty in the northern triangle of Central America or, in Guzman’s case, Mexico. He said he had been kidnapped and tortured by a drug cartel in his early 20s. After escaping and making his way to the United States, he found work on the west coast, but a traffic violation led to his arrest and incarceration in a privately run immigration prison in California. He remained there for 14 months until a donor posted $25,000 bond. The Iowa Catholic Worker House agreed to sponsor Guzman, who also seeks asylum.
A Honduran refugee told the bishop that ICE officers detained her husband at the Cedar Rapids facility in front of her and their two teenage daughters and later deported him. A Guatemalan wife and mother related a similar experience. A Salvadoran wife and mother reported that authorities separated her from her husband at the Ciudad Juarez/El Paso border. “I ask God every day for the opportunity for us to be together, as a family,” she said.
“You are all children of God,” the bishop told the gathering. “You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” As the shepherd of the 22 counties of southeast Iowa in the Diocese of Davenport, he said, “I care about you very much, as much as anyone in the diocese.”
“Be strong, be courageous. Stay close to God and have hope,” he told the refugees. Emily Sinnwell, co-founder and trustee of the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, translated. Also present were Catholic Worker volunteers, journalists and other supporters of justice for immigrants.
After the roundtable discussion, David Goodner, co-founder of Iowa City Catholic Worker House, pulled up a van and drove Bishop Zinkula and 14 solidarity supporters to the ICE facility in Cedar Rapids for Guzman’s 10 a.m. check-in. The ICE officer who opened the facility’s front door recognized Bishop Zinkula, who previously served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
After the officer checked bags and purses, the group sat down and waited a short time before an ICE officer called Guzman’s name. He entered another room for the closed-door check-in. On the other side of the reception area, a woman exited another doorway with two young children. She had just had her ankle monitor removed, a hopeful sign to everyone in the waiting area.
As the group waited, Father Guillermo Trevino Jr., a priest of the Davenport Diocese, asked everyone to pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary. He repeated each prayer in Spanish. Soon Guzman emerged from the other room, smiling and showing his leg from which an ankle monitor had been removed.
During an on-camera interview with journalists, Guzman expressed gratitude. “He feels very happy, very fortunate to be with all of you,” said Father Trevino, who translated for Guzman. “He feels like a very important person with all the support.”
Outside the federal facility, the solidarity supporters who accompanied Guzman bowed their heads as Bishop Zinkula prayed, “Lord we pray that things continue to go well for him and his loved ones and for justice.”
Maureen Vasile, a Catholic Worker volunteer and member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, said “We are called by God to love our neighbor and serve the poor.” Bishop Zinkula’s prayers and actions are “showing us exactly what that looks like.”