Goshen College student helps families recover after Iowa immigration raid

Iowa • Analisa Gerig-Sickles (back right) stands with an immigrant family that she worked with at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, in Postville, Iowa. http://www.goshen.edu/news/pressarchive/08-29-08-analisa125.html

-GOSHEN, Ind. ­ On May 12, 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted a raid on Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, of which U.S. Attorney Matt M. Dummermuth called at the time “the largest criminal worksite enforcement operation ever in the United States.” As a result of the raid, nearly 400 undocumented immigrants were arrested.

That same May, Goshen College senior Analisa Gerig-Sickles was in Mexico and Texas border towns exploring issues of immigration through Goshen College’s three-week Borderlands class. “Borderlands revealed a whole picture of immigration that I had known was unjust, but I had not realized that it was unjust to this extent,” she said. “It got my feet into immigration issues.” After the experience, Gerig-Sickles decided to put her new insights into practice.

When she returned home for the summer to West Branch, Iowa ­ about two and a half hours south of Postville ­ Gerig-Sickles saw an announcement seeking bilingual volunteers to help at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, in Postville, with various relief projects. Having spent a semester in Perú with Goshen College’s Study-Service Term studying Spanish, she thought she could help and decided to volunteer at the church.

A commitment to social justice grows out of Gerig-Sickles’ Christian faith. “Social justice was a big thing [growing up] in my church,” she said. “When I was making the decision, my church had a sermon about being called to go some place new, somewhere that may not be comfortable, and I realized I was being called to help out at St. Bridget’s this summer.”

For many of the immigrants, “the church is kind of a social gathering place,” Gerig-Sickles said. “People went there because they felt comfortable.” And on any given day, since the raid in May, there are between 50 and 100 people in the church.

A number of the immigrants who seek refuge in the church are pregnant women or women with children who were arrested at the plant and were released from the authorities, but with a GPS device attached to their ankles, so the police can know where they are at all times. The church takes care of immigrants who can’t work, aren’t safe out in public and have no place to go, Gerig-Sickles said.

Though Gerig-Sickles originally planned to volunteer, the church hired her to work part-time every Monday through Wednesday. During those days, she spent much of her time trying to locate as many of the immigrants in custody as she could.

Because of the enormity of the raid, many of the immigrants were taken to jails across Iowa, Kansas and to a federal penitentiary in Louisiana. “I had people come in and say ‘Where’s my husband? Where’s my son?’” Gerig-Sickles said. She often had to rely on busy federal agencies, such as ICE, to locate the lost family members.

Many of the immigrants working at the meatpacking plant were from Guatemala, where a civil war lasted from 1960 to 1996. Thousands of people went missing and are still unaccounted for during those years and it is still fresh on many of the immigrants’ minds. When the raid happened and many families had no available communication or knowledge of their relative’s location, a fear that they would never see them again seemed even more real.

“A lot of the people were going through so much,” Gerig-Sickles said. “These people’s families are being torn apart ... People not being told in what jail a family member is located in, people caught in limbo waiting for the government to decide if they should send them to their country or if they should stay there as witnesses, [and] having women face the shame of wearing an ankle bracelet ... To see the pain they went through was very hard.”

One day, Gerig-Sickles went with one of the women who was staying at the church to buy groceries. While in the store, the woman offered to buy Gerig-Sickles a soft drink. She declined the offer, but the woman insisted saying, “this is for you because you helped me.”

“They think that because we are helping them, they want to help us,” Gerig-Sickles said. “I had lots of experiences that have been very humbling and amazing.”

­ By Tyler Falk (summary)

Goshen College News Bureau Director

Jodi H. Beyeler