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Guatemalan families reunite in Iowa

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Family members of former Agriprocessors workers arrive in Postville Dec. 4 with an official of the Guatemalan Consulate. (Sr. Judy Callahan, BVM)

POSTVILLE, IOWA -- The sign on the bus traveling from the Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Postville on slippery roads Dec. 4 said “SPECIAL.” That was an understatement.

When the bus pulled up in front of St. Bridget Church in Postville at 8:45 a.m., it delivered the best Christmas gift anyone could wish for -- 26 family members from Guatemala coming to be reunited with eight former Agriprocessors workers whom they had not seen in years.

Many of the travelers were children whose mothers left Guatemala several years ago to earn money in Postville to send back to their hungry families. Some were parents or siblings of former underage teen workers.

“It was a very emotional moment,” said Mary McCauley, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was among those who met the bus. “Seeing their faces as they recognized loved ones was indescribable!”

McCauley was pastoral administrator at the Postville parish at the time of the largest immigration raid in U.S. history at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant on May 12, 2008 (NCR, June 13, 2008).

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The three young children of Isabel Amparo looked worried as their mother still hadn’t arrived. She works at a dairy farm near Farley, a few hours away, and the icy roads delayed her meeting the bus.

Although it was 73 degrees when the group left Guatemala, the warmth of the ecstatic welcomes overshadowed the contrasting frigid Iowa temperature and the 7.1 inches of snow on the ground in Postville.

The group was soon ushered inside the warm church hall, where a large crowd had gathered.

Sr. Mary McCauley will speak at the third annual Celebration Conference on Effective Liturgy: A Light to the Nations. Learn more
After a rousing welcome, there was a short time for prayers of gratitude. McCauley recalled the tears that flowed in that room the day of the raid in 2008. “Now this room is filled with tears for a very different reason,” she said.

Pastor David Vasquez of Luther College in Decorah invited one of the immigrants to also say a few words.

In a phone interview, Vasquez summarized the message of Federico Solvi, 56, who stepped forward to represent the group.

“[Solvi] said the newcomers were so appreciative of the efforts of those who made their coming to the U.S. possible,” Vasquez recalled. “Loosely translated, [Solvi] thanked those ‘whose hearts are so large they do not fit into their chests.’

“He also challenged the newcomers to take advantage of the opportunities they now have, to advocate not just for themselves, but to join in the struggle for justice.”

Vasquez reported that Solvi said the decision to come was bittersweet, as it meant leaving other family members in Guatemala. But the political and economic situation in the country is so bad that this move gives the families a chance for a new life for their children. “People are dying from hunger in Guatemala,” Solvi said.

The reunion was the culmination of months of legal work headed by Sonia Parras Konrad, a Des Moines immigration lawyer who engaged in hours of pro bono work representing many of the families. She went to Postville shortly after the raid and documented the criminal mistreatment workers had endured under the former Agriprocessors administration.

These immigrant workers, who later cooperated with the federal investigation, were now eligible to apply for a U visa -- a relatively new immigration document. The U visa is available when it is proven that an individual has experienced substantial physical and mental abuse as a result of a criminal violation. It is a strict program that allows those who have been victims of certain crimes to stay in the United States and to legally bring immediate family members to this country to apply for temporary legal status. The U visa allows immigrants to stay and work in the United States for up to four years, according to www.usimmigrationsupport.org. If conditions are met in the future, those with the visas and their family members can eventually pursue the path to U.S. citizenship.

Parras Konrad worked for months with the Guatemalan Consulate to apply for these visas, which were a “nightmare of paperwork and hard to get,” she was quoted as saying in a Dec. 5 Des Moines Register article.

Although this was a happy day for eight families, McCauley said there were 389 arrested the day of the raid. Most of them were rushed through mass court proceedings at the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo, jailed for five months and deported to Guatemala and Mexico without the benefit of legal counsel.

Financial support for the legal and travel expenses for the reunions came from various sources, notably the religious communities in the Region X Leadership Conference of Women Religious and from the loan fund established by the Decorah Area Faith Coalition. Luther College also arranged for the bus transportation from Chicago.

[Franciscan Sr. Carol Hoverman is editor of The Witness, newspaper of the Dubuque, Iowa, archdiocese.]

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