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From Service to Solidarity: Unitarian Universalist Society of Black Hawk County, Cedar Falls, IA Supports Local Immigrant Family
The May 2008 Agriprocessors Inc. workplace raid in Postville, IA is considered the largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, with 389 workers taken in to custody. Most of those arrested served five month prison sentences and then were deported. Among the group were 26 minors, many of whom were working in violation of child labor laws. The raid received national publicity and created widespread outrage and concern as families were separated, children were left without parents, and the people detained were denied access to legal assistance and support. Thousands of people from the faith community, including Unitarian Universalists (UUs), responded with vigils on behalf of the detainees.
Two years later, six youth who had been working at the plant and were deported to Guatemala, were brought back as material witnesses in a labor case against the general manager. These undocumented teenaged workers spoke out at a federal investigation of Agriprocessors to expose their exploitative labor practices. The youth and some of their family members were provided with U-visas and allowed to return to the U.S. U-visas grant temporary immigration benefits to victims of certain criminal activities. Individuals and their families can live in the U.S. for 3-years with temporary work status, and after three years, can apply for permanent residency.
Luis Argueta, a documentary filmmaker produced the film abUSed: The Postville Raid, and was a liaison between these youth and the government officials in Guatemala and Iowa. He escorted the teens to the trial and provided assistance in their resettlement. He connected with the Iowa Immigration Task Force of the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center in Decorah to coordinate three months of support for the families who had returned They needed to find housing, funding for rent, utilities, and food, ESL classes, health services, and clothing and furniture so that the families could begin settling in.
Nineteen year old Jimy Gomez, his wife and 7-month old son, along with his mother, sister, and brother, decided to move to Waterloo, IA. The Iowa Immigration Task Force contacted the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society of Black Hawk County (UUSBHC) about providing support for the Gomez family, as the congregation was nearby and known for its compassionate values and justice ministry. Congregational leaders had just started making plans to learn more about immigration and immigrants in their community. Heather Flory, member of UUSBHC’s Religious Education & Program Council (REAP), Rev. Eva Cameron, minister, and Sally Browne, social action director, met to consider the Gomez family’s needs and the congregation’s capacity to support them.
After meeting with the family and talking with various members of the congregation, UUSBHC made a three month commitment to assist the Gomez family. On December 16, 2011, twenty-five people participated in a potluck dinner at the congregation to welcome Jimy and his family. Jimy's uncle, aunt, and cousin, who already lived in Waterloo, also joined the party, along with local guests from nearby congregations and organizations, and documentary film maker Luis Argueta.
Heather Flory said of the welcoming party: “We started with introductions in English and Spanish, in which the most common phrase was ‘no hablo español muy bien,’ and a 17-year-old Guatemalan who was brave enough to introduce himself in English was greeted with roaring applause. We had a UU blessing of the meal in English and Spanish; and some attempts at conversation in both languages; along with some really great food. My personal favorite moment of the evening was when two of the children from our congregation (ages 10 and 8) asked me to invite the two youngest Guatemalan visitors (13 and 10) to play a game, and then watching the four children playing together without regard to language or cultural barriers for the rest of the evening.”
Since the gathering in December, thirty people of this 135-member congregation have been involved in supporting the family in some way, from donating goods, to helping furnish their house, to providing ESL instruction, and transportation, and many more have contributed financially. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier featured the congregation in an article that led to local people from the community volunteering to help and began a connection with the Cedar Falls Mennonite Church and the Peace & Justice Center of the Cedar Valley. Together they have been collecting donations for the U-Visa Fund at N.E. Iowa Peace and Justice Center and as of January over $13,000 of a $15,000 goal had been raised.
At the beginning of the year, the adult R.E. program began discussing the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Common Read, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands. Twenty to twenty five people participate in the monthly one-hour sessions that include updates from the local immigrant community. Congregational leaders chose to connect their justice ministry and their adult religious education program with the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Heather Flory describes their efforts as an interconnected web. “I'm the adult RE coordinator and I work very closely with the Social Action director. She's been leading the discussion on The Death of Josseline. We've come at it from all angles. That integrated approach has made it more meaningful for people."
The congregation recently sponsored a screening of the documentary film abUSed: The Postville Raid, with director Luis Argueta and the Gomez family. Members of UUSBHC and the Cedar Falls Mennonite Church attended and more people had an opportunity to meet the family and learn about the impact of US immigration policy on migrant families.
Jimy Gomez says that he "has just been in awe of people who have helped him and especially people who aren't Hispanics." Rev. Eva Cameron reports, “I think it’s been a good example of helping in a new way for our congregation. Many people have learned more about the richness of the Latino/a community here, and about what resources are available in the realm of immigrant services, including low-cost health care and how to access them.”
As the Gomez family has gotten jobs, work permits, and social security numbers, and have settled in to their new home, the congregation is transitioning from providing support for the family to a broader immigrant justice ministry. The interfaith group is considering how to connect with and support other families in the community. Heather Flory explains, "It was great to help the family and we now have that personal connection; but this was just one family, and there were so many families out there. People are now asking, ‘What can I do on a larger scale?’"
Heather will be one of the delegates for the congregation at Justice General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix where they hope to learn more about the ways our faith community and immigrant communities are partnering together for justice and to create beloved community.