CEDAR RAPIDS — Solidarity was on display at a vigil Tuesday accompanying three immigrants living in Iowa City as they completed a mandatory check-in at the Homeland Security Investigations office in Cedar Rapids.
About 50 people — members of the Catholic Worker House, supporters and advocates from various organizations — accompanied the men, singing songs and waiting with them outside the office as officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement reviewed their paperwork.
Alejandro Guzman, Jose Robinson Palacios and Pablo Mateo are all seeking asylum in the United States, having fled violence in their home countries — Guzman is from Mexico, Robinson Palacios is from Honduras and Mateo is from Guatemala.
Emily Sinnwell of the Catholic Worker House translated for Guzman and Robinson Palacios from Spanish as they told their stories. Both were detained by immigration authorities and spent time at Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California before the Iowa City Catholic Worker House worked with the Eastern Iowa Community Bond project to pay their bail and bring them to Iowa.
Having outside support like this can be vital to asylum-seekers’ chances of succeeding in their quest to stay in the United States.
Guzman said he was trying to fight his immigration case from inside the detention center, where he was held for 14 months, but without access to an attorney he didn’t have much hope. His bail was $25,000, which he felt he would never be able to pay. Then a friend gave him the phone number for the Iowa City Catholic Worker House.
He said in his previous home of Tijuana, he was kidnapped by gang members and tortured, and he fears returning there.
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Robinson Palacio was held on $10,000 bail and spent seven months at Adelanto. He said conditions there were “horrible” with “food like you’d give animals.”
“I came here to this country to ask for support and not to be treated badly,” he said.
He said he fled Honduras after gangs tried to recruit him. He was accompanied on a previous ICE check-in by then-presidential candidate Julian Castro. The Iowa City Catholic Worker House frequently organizes these vigils to accompany immigrants they work with.
“We really want to share the journey with people,” Sinnwell said. “People usually come here alone and are scared; they’re traumatized. To have people go with them and walk with them and know they’re not alone is powerful.”
Since being released, the men got temporary work visas and Social Security cards while waiting for their cases to be decided. Guzman found a job in construction, and Robinson Palacios works as a roofer.
“I would like to have a family and a life that’s different from what I had,” Guzman said.
Sinnwell said the Catholic Worker House does not call for crowds like this every time someone has a check-in, but does for cases they consider more high-risk.
All three men had their asylum cases denied initially and sent to removal proceedings, but they have appealed and are waiting to hear if they are successful.
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Even when the person checking in doesn’t want a full vigil, the Catholic Worker House will often send a couple of people for support, transportation and translation.
“Just knowing there’s someone here supporting them if something goes wrong or if there’s some miscommunication is important,” Sinnwell said.
Seeing the crowd gathered in Cedar Rapids, the men expressed gratitude.
“Last night, I wouldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, but seeing you all here, I feel better,” Robinson Palacio said.
He and Guzman said they wanted others to know they came to America hoping for safety and security in a place they grew up learning is a land of opportunity.
“Immigrant like us, we just came here to work. I just want to use my voice to tell people we are not here to do anything bad, but to make a better life,” Robinson Palacio said.
At the end of the meeting, they got good news; Mateo’s ankle bracelet was removed, and all three were told they would not have to return for a check-in for a year, unless there were developments in their cases.
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