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Iowa faith leaders speak out for immigrant workers

Debris from a flood-damaged home is piled along a street in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where more than 4,000 homes were flooded in June.
A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
July 11, 2008

United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer and other faith leaders are calling on churches to advocate for better treatment of low-wage workers helping with flood relief in Iowa.

Bishop Gregory Palmer

Christian faith commands the church to speak out in ways that lessen fear and show God’s love for everyone, said Palmer, who leads the denomination’s Iowa Area.

He spoke during a July 10 telephone press conference organized by Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. He was joined by bishops and pastors from the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Church of Christ.

The religious leaders also condemned the U.S. government's handling of a May 12 raid at a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, which resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 undocumented workers.

Calloused hands

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel, the Episcopal priest who brought the plight of the relief workers into the public eye, participated in the press conference. Quehl-Engel is chaplain at United Methodist related-Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, where the immigrants were first housed. In an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, she had reported incidents of workers traveling on a bus for 14 hours without food, tetanus shots, bedding or towels for showering.

In the press conference, she described the workers as “the calloused hands of Christ” during Iowa’s time of need.

The workers received $15 a day for food and expenses and less than minimum wage compensation, according to Quehl-Engel, who also participated in the July 10 press conference. She said workers toiled in "toxic environments" 14-hour days, seven days a week, and had to pay back a temporary employment agency $49 a week for the school bus gas needed to get to the worst flooded areas in Iowa.

The religious leaders want Iowa lawmakers to pass legislation protecting the immigrant and other low-wage workers, according to the Des Moines Register. The paper noted that thousands of workers—primarily minorities and immigrants—have been recruited from cities around the United States as well as Central America. A spokesperson for Iowa’s Department of Workforce Development said the state would be investigating complaints filed on behalf of the workers.

Palmer said he and the other church leaders have been asked why they are inserting themselves into public policy. "People say, ‘you are not experts.’ We are involved as the sign and symbol of God’s love for all people."

"We are concerned that we would substitute any level of fear mongering ... for the hard work of getting a humane and just immigration policy," he said.

Families torn apart

The religious leaders also focused on the aftermath of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville.

Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel

Bishop Steven L. Ullestad, Northeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said Postville was his hometown.

The May 12 raid on the kosher plant "was an invasion by the U.S. government" of the community, he said. "Hundreds of agents with guns and dogs removed people from the plant in handcuffs." Many children spent the first 72 hours after the raid not knowing what had happened to their parents, he said. 

Families were torn apart and left with no income, the bishop said. Forty-two women and two men are still shackled with electronic monitoring devices on their ankles and cannot go to work or leave the state. Hundreds of others are in prison and probably will be deported, he said.

Ullestad said people in Postville were left asking, “Why did the government decide to destroy our town?”

Bishop Alan Scarfe, Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, suggested Postville was chosen because "Iowa is so homogeneously white, that …(it) is not seen as a community of protest."

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has described the operation as "the largest criminal worksite enforcement operation in U.S. history."

"(Government) policies have increased the level of fear," Palmer said, "and have literally terrorized the lives of people and torn apart families."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Bishop Gregory Palmer: “…a humane, reasonable, and just immigration policy.”

Bishop Gregory Palmer: “…holding accountable employers…”

Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel: “…the last two biggest raids in the country … have been in Iowa…”

Bishop Alan Scarfe: “an invasion by the Unites States government on their community.”

Bishop Steven L. Ullestad: “…they’ve been the calloused hands of Christ…”

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Church leaders call for fair treatment of relief workers

Religious leaders decry abuse of migrant workers


Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Cornell College

Iowa Annual Conference

Episcopal Diocese of Iowa

Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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