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'Risking it all:' Immigrants, refugees tell of coming to United States

Junior high students hear stories as part of Catholics in Action summer camp

Marcela Hurtado, originally from Mexico, tells Monday how she helped co-found the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, an advocacy organization that works on behalf of low-wage earners on issues like preventing wage theft and increasing the minimum wage, since coming to the United States 15 years ago. She shared her story through a translator at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Marcela Hurtado, originally from Mexico, tells Monday how she helped co-found the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, an advocacy organization that works on behalf of low-wage earners on issues like preventing wage theft and increasing the minimum wage, since coming to the United States 15 years ago. She shared her story through a translator at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — From a man who won the diversity visa lottery in Congo to a woman who escaped gangs in Honduras to seek political asylum, refugees and immigrants shared their stories Monday with children at the Catholic Worker House.

Two dozen junior high students participated in a “teach-in” at the house Monday afternoon as part of a three-day summer camp called Catholics in Action. The students heard stories of the immigrants and refugees, as well as joined in on a prayer vigil and attended a bilingual Mass.

The events fell under the camp’s theme this year of “Share the Journey.” It was inspired by a campaign launched by Pope Francis in 2017, which encourages Catholics to “grow in solidarity with the plight of immigrants and refugees,” according to the Catholic Worker House, which serves as transitional housing and provides free meals for people who are poor.

But the teach-in also comes amid an uproar over the latest tactic in fighting illegal immigration, in which the Trump administration has separated hundreds of children from their parents as the parents cross the boarder illegally.

Last week, facing outrage from both political parties, President Donald Trump ordered that families be kept together during prosecution, though officials are struggling over how to do that and to reunite the families.

The teach-in “brings a connection to the parents and students how hard it is to leave a country that you love to seek that better life. And you’re risking it all,” said Angel Hernandez, a Catholic Worker volunteer and advisory board member, who came to the United States from Mexico when he was 4 years old. “I just hope that they get that connection and the face of a refugee, the face of an immigrant.”

One of those faces is Dum Spiro Spera Descartes-Mbiya, known as Patrick, who won the diversity visa lottery seven months ago.

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The speaker of several languages said he first worked to learn English and hopes to go to school and become a priest.

The diversity lottery program randomly rewards winners from countries with historically low immigration rates to the United States with green cards, allowing permanent residency.

That program, too, has been the subject of debate in Washington. The overwhelming number of green cards are awarded because of family connections or employment needs, or to refugees or people seeking asylum, and not randomly.

Winners of diversity lotteries still must pass security and educational requirements.

Another teach-in speaker was Rosalinda Velasquez, who told her story of seeking asylum in the United States after her husband, Leonida, who had a business selling fruits in Honduras, was killed by a gang when he refused to pay them off.

After her husband’s death, she started her own grocery business before being forced to flee to Mexico, then eventually the United States.

“The same group, the same gang, was telling me that I have to pay this fine. And if I didn’t they were going to kidnap my oldest son, Leo, so that’s why I had to leave,” Velasquez said through a translator.

Marcela Hurtado, originally from Mexico, explained to the students what she’s been working on since immigrating to the United States about 15 years ago.

She helped to co-found the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, an advocacy organization that works on behalf of low-wage earners on issues like preventing wage theft and increasing the minimum wage.

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“Our mission is to educate the community and to empower voices, voices like mine, that before were quiet because of fear or because of not knowing my rights. We empower people to speak out in the community and stand up for themselves,” Hurtado said through a translator. “I came because in my community there weren’t a lot of opportunities. Jobs were pretty scarce and there weren’t a lot of ways to educate myself and move ahead.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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