Thursday, June 05, 2008

Sisters of Mercy reacting to the Impact of Immigration raids in Iowa.

On Tuesday, May 20, Sister of Mercy Kathy Thill spoke at a press conference about what happened in Postville, Iowa when 390 of approximately 2,300 residents were arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Below are her remarks.

My name is Sister Kathy Thill and I am a Sister of Mercy who works with the Latino community of Iowa. I am also a United States citizen who grew up believing that this is a democratic country in which the dignity of all people is respected and their rights protected. That is not the country I experienced this past week.

I share my experience with the hope that it will help lawmakers and my fellow citizens see that our nation's immigration policies and practices are broken and inhumane. We need comprehensive immigration reform which includes a pathway to lawful permanent residence and citizenship, meets immigrants' basic needs, encourages family unity and reunification and addresses the root causes of migration.

When ICE took over the National Cattle Congress grounds for "training purposes" a week before the raids, we knew something was going to happen. Not one of us was prepared for what did happen on Monday, May 12 in Postville, Iowa.

Sister Mary McCauley at St. Bridget's Catholic Church called me that morning, shortly after the raids began. I was one of three from El Centro Latinoamericano, a Hispanic resource center in Waterloo, who went to help in Postville. At St. Bridget's we found hundreds of people in shock and distress - frightened to leave the church for fear of being arrested and desperate to find out what was happening to their loved ones who had been arrested.

Working with the staff of St. Bridget's we did our best to meet the needs of the families and, at 4:00 p.m., we went to Agriprocessers, the site of the raid, and tried to get information on those detained. We were especially concerned about the 17 minors who had been taken during the raid. We brought a list of names and ages of the minors and requested information about them. We were told to come back later and that parents with ID could come to pick up some youth who would be released. ICE officials did not provide any information. Later, we brought two parents, each hoping for word on their sons. Again ICE officials did not give us any information. So we waited.

Eventually, some women and youth were released wearing GPS tracking devices on their ankles to track them until their court appearances. We were told there would be no more releases and that detainees were going to be transferred to Waterloo and held at the Cattle Congress. The parents we brought earlier still had no word on their sons. Their tension, grief and distress increased as buses began to take detainees from the site.

Of the 17 minors arrested, five or six are still in custody. A 16-year-old who was released told me that he kept trying to tell officials his age, but they refused to believe him, cursed at him and made fun of him for being Hispanic. A 17-year-old who was arrested asked me, "I didn't come here to rob people or do bad things. I just came to work, to earn money for my family. Why do people hate us so much?" I had no answer.
The only bright spot in the day was in the generosity of those in the Postville community and throughout Iowa who have made donations and volunteered to help their immigrant sisters and brothers. We spent several hours on Monday evening having family members sign the forms necessary to enable immigration attorneys to see the detainees the next day.

Meanwhile hundreds of men, women, children and babies remained at the church sleeping on the floor and church pews, too frightened to go home. This arrangement continued throughout the week despite our efforts to convince them it was safe to go home.

During the early morning hours on Tuesday a few women were released at varying times for humanitarian reasons and taken back to Postville. One woman who was released me told me it had been her first day at Agriprocessors and she had been only working 15 minutes when the raid began. While in custody she asked to call her family but was told by officials she did not have a right to make a phone call. Seeing this mother reunited with her child brought tears to everyone's eyes. It lifted my spirits, but not for long.

Throughout the week we met with one obstacle after another. For example, on Tuesday, after waiting and negotiating most of the day to see the detainees, the attorneys learned that criminal charges, not immigration charges, would be filed so the immigration lawyers could not see or talk to the detainees. I learned later that Mexican Consulate officials were also there first thing on Tuesday and were denied access for quite a while.

Much time and effort was spent during the week trying to obtain information about the detainees, confirming the immigrants who were detained, the charges filed against them and where they were taken. ICE had set up an 800 number to provide this information but this was very ineffective.

Hundreds of families are torn apart by this raid. In several families, both parents were arrested leaving no one to care for children. In one example, a neighbor took the children in until the mother was released on Wednesday. Even upon her release, ICE officials would not allow her to go to the church where her children were staying. Instead, they took her to her apartment, looked around and, as they were leaving, threatened her not to take a step out of the apartment. If she did, she would never see her children again.

The mother of another family was released while her husband is still detained. Her children, one of which is a U.S. citizen, are upset and frightened. The six year old cries asking to see her daddy. The mother cannot work. There is no income, no way to provide for her children.

The humanitarian impact of this raid is obvious to anyone in Postville. The economic impact will soon be evident. Hundreds of families are now left without income - struggling to figure out how to pay the rent and provide food for their children. Some have thought about canceling their phone service to save money but ICE officials told those with GPS devices they must maintain service to have contact with officials. Other families have decided to move several families into one apartment to save on rent.

Those released need to appear in court - some in Waterloo and in other places around Iowa - but they have no money for transportation, much less for a night's stay somewhere if that is required.

Postville's population before the raids was only 2,300, so the impact on this community will be devastating. It is estimated that the population will decrease by one-third to one-half. And the impact goes beyond Postville. In Waterloo, we are receiving calls from people too scared to go to work. People are losing their jobs and have received their last paycheck. Others are in hiding.

Fear is rampant. I spoke with a Waterloo school official who was concerned about a particular student who had not been in school this week. Her family was too afraid to leave the house after ICE had come knocking at their door.

In Postville, half of the children were absent from school this week. Counselors were brought in to assist the children devastated by the loss of a parent or family member. Later in the week counselors were called back to assist non-immigrant children who were having nightmares worrying that their parents would be taken.

This past week a mother and daughter - both U.S. citizens - were stopped while shopping at Wal-Mart and questioned by ICE officials for an hour and a half.

The tension and fear is not limited to the Hispanic and Latino communities. When driving to Postville this Friday with a car full of donations I received a call about possible checkpoints between Waterloo and Postville. I wondered what might happen to me for delivering the supplies. I suddenly felt like I was in a strange country. I didn't feel free.

The immigration policies and practices of our government are disastrous. The inhumane way these raids are conducted and the negative impact on families and our communities is intolerable. The trauma created is a tremendous injustice.

Perhaps an even greater injustice is the exploitation, physical and sexual abuse by Agriprocessors. Those who are willing to risk so much to put food on their table and try to provide a better life for their children are put in jail and labeled criminals. Yet those who commit crimes of violence are free.

It is with urgency that I call on the government to pass comprehensive immigration reform which includes a pathway to lawful permanent residence and citizenship, meets immigrants' basic needs, encourages family unity and reunification, and addresses the root causes of migration.

It is time to change our immigration policies and practices so that once again we become the nation in which the dignity of all people is paramount and their rights protected

No comments: