Christian leaders in Postville, Iowa – site of the largest immigration raid in U.S. history – discussed the sadness that now pervades the rural town and why U.S. laws should be changed to avoid another humanitarian disaster like the one the town experienced.
"Our community is worn out after seven months of fear, chaos, and on-going demands," said the Rev. David Vasquez, campus pastor of Luther College in nearby Decorah, Iowa, on Wednesday during a teleconference.
Vasquez and other Iowa church leaders, including Paul Rael of St. Bridget's Catholic Church, have been at the forefront of caring for the immigrants working at Agriprocessors Inc. – the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse – which was raided in May.
The government raid on the meatpacking plant included a force of dozens of federal agents and two law enforcement helicopters.
Following the event, many families left Postville to find jobs elsewhere, while others remained in the town taking refuge in St. Bridget's church and depending completely on charity to survive.
Rael confirmed that it costs St. Bridget about $80,000 a month to care for all the immigrants, who cannot work after the raid.
"I just hope that the new President-elect will help us," said Violeta Aleman, a former Agriprocessors employee. "All these [immigrant] ladies have suffered month after month with the braces on, living off charity – they are not used to that. They are embarrassed to ask for what they need but they have no other choice."
The Rev. Steve Brackett, senior pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Postville, said it is "ridiculous" to expect the church to "bear the brunt" of the humanitarian need following the raid.
He asked Americans and officials to not just see the immigration problem in a political light, but ask themselves why people come to the United States to work.
"We have our own Judeo-Christian ancestors that we look to, who themselves resided as aliens in foreign lands out of necessity," Brackett said. "And I think it's important when you look at immigration you look at what is going on in the home country of individuals who choose to leave them and come to the United States.
"Although you might not find famine, you will find all kinds of political and economic problems."
As Christians, the leaders said they uphold the law but need to question the law when it contradicts or is inconsistent with their values.
"They (U.S congress) need to take the politics out of it (the immigration debate)," Brackett said.
"It's an issue that is too highly charged. They need to look at people as people, not as being legal or illegal," the Postville pastor continued.
"Certainly the Scripture tells us God does not look at people as legal or illegal, but simply as children of God."
Likewise, Pastor Vasquez called for a reform of current immigration laws.
Postville, said Vasquez, was made into a "whipping boy" of a misguided immigration system" that is based on the concept that if you take a boy to the front of a class and whip him then everyone else in the class will behave.
"We have convinced ourselves that it is whipping and fear that will convince others from staying," Vasquez said. "That grossly misunderstands the fear, hunger, and the need that drives people to come and seek a future here.
"As people of faith in particular, we call on elected officials to pay attention to what happens here. To realize that we are undermining not only the economy of a small community, the future of a rural community, but we are undermining our very own values and the things that we deeply believe," the pastor said.
The Iowa church leaders are calling for a bipartisan delegation of congressmen to visit Postville to see first-hand the effects of current immigration policies so that the immigration debate can have more depth and not just be about legal and illegal people.
They're also calling for an end to military-type raids and comprehensive immigration reform.
"People are people no matter how small," Vasquez concluded. "Please, we call on the new administration and elected officials, please listen to Postville for the sake of those who are stranded here, but more importantly for the sake of our nation and our very identity."