By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
In a one-two punch, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, visited detained immigrants in Iowa’s Polk County Jail, Dec. 7, and then immediately afterwards, held a press conference calling on Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would grant residency to qualified immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors.
Bishop Pates’ efforts were timed to coincide with various acts of solidarity organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) around the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, as well as Pope Francis’ global “Share the Journey” campaign, which commenced in September and is aimed to encourage Catholics to “encounter” migrants and refugees.
Bishop Pates described his meeting with 20 individuals recently detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), and said his goal was to provide “support, encouragement, and understanding” and to show that Catholics are “really with them.”
His meeting began with a 30-minute prayer service with the detainees followed by another half-hour of listening to personal stories. He said that one of the most memorable stories came from a young immigrant, whom he described as no more than 23 years of age, recently married with two children, the youngest being only eight months old, who was arrested due to his immigration status following a routine traffic stop.
“He said, ‘Perhaps I cannot achieve citizenship, but I would appreciate recognition and residency in the only country I’ve ever known,’” Bishop Pates recalled.
“These young people have so much talent to share.”
Along with the recent detainees, five other inmates joined the prayer service and expressed their frustration with the mental health conditions in the prison and described it as an inappropriate place to get the proper support for treatment. They also spoke of the fact that the majority of the prisoners were serving time for drug related crimes, rather than violent offenses, and expressed the need for greater measures to “rehabilitate so that they can lead productive lives.”
Bishop Pates said that an estimated 40 percent of his diocese is of Hispanic origin and that he has spoken with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley on several occasions about the need to pass the DREAM Act, which Grassley supports. “These Dreamers really are, in the best sense of the word, Americans,” Bishop Pates said.
At the press conference following his visit to the detention center, Bishop Pates said that when much of the focus during the Christmas season was on spending time with family and friends, he wanted to visit with those currently separated from their own communities.
“I wanted to meet them and hear their stories,” he said. “These are our neighbors, our friends and our family. They are facing deportation. Many are being torn from their families during the Christmas season because of an unjust immigration system.”
In September, the Trump administration announced it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and set a deadline of March 2018 for Congress to come up with a permanent fix.
DACA allowed qualifying individuals to apply for a permit to stay in the United States for employment or to continue their education. The decision to end the program has left an estimated 800,000 individuals with an uncertain legal fate, hence the push by the USCCB, along with many other immigrant advocacy groups, to pass the DREAM Act, which would protect DACA beneficiaries.
Bishop Pates described this issue as the “number one policy priority of the bishops” at the moment and said that protecting DACA beneficiaries is “morally imperative.”
He also denounced the “American appetite for drugs,” which has led to “corruption, poverty, and instability” within parts of Latin American and forced so many individuals to seek refuge in the United States. He labeled this cycle as both “ironic” and “tragic,” while adding that he admired “their risk and their courage.”
Over 15 percent of the statements issued by the U.S. bishops over the past year have related to immigration issues. However, Bishop Pates said that “concrete actions,” such as his visit to the detainees, are needed in order “to help us see these individuals and realize that they are no different than us.
“It allows me to communicate our message directly to them,” he added.
“Papers and statements don’t always convey our messaging,” Bishop Pates said. “When you visit real people, it enlightens people as to what we need to do and how we need to move.”