Online giving fuels church’s work to help immigrants

November 12, 2019 by Meredith Hines-Dochterman

Mount Pleasant is a community of less than 9,000 people. It has an idyllic town square surrounded by restaurants and local businesses, just like one would expect when picturing small-town Iowa.

That image changed on May 9, 2018, when dozens of men were seized from Mount Pleasant’s Midwest Precast Concrete plant by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

Fear was rampant across the town as a helicopter flew over the factory. Stories of high school students leaving school to check on their fathers or mothers driving to elementary schools to pick up their children were both true and false – real for some and an exaggeration for others. People were scared. They wanted answers, but officials weren’t talking. By nightfall, First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant was crowded with individuals trying to make sense of it all.

“It was a very traumatic evening,” said Tammy Shull, chair of IowaWINs (Iowa Welcomes its Immigrant Neighbors). “We had families crying, not knowing what happened to the men.”

According to the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor at First Presbyterian, 75 people were initially rounded up during the raid, with 32 eventually detained – 22 from Guatemala, and the rest from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras.

“ICE wouldn’t release names,” Hegar said. “It took us two weeks to identify who was taken and that’s only because we had the families here telling us that their loved ones hadn’t come home.”

Mount Pleasant isn’t the first community to be shaken by an ICE raid and it likely won’t be the last. What sets this community apart from others is the legwork that was done prior to that day.

This includes First Presbyterian’s establishment of an online giving fund with the Presbyterian Foundation, which allowed them to collect donations, particularly after the raid. Additional support for this important work has come from other organizations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), including Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which made grants to the Presbytery of Eastern Iowa, and Presbyterian Women. Between the donations, fundraising, grants and other sources, almost $350,000 was collected for assisting refugees and immigrants in the area.

Problems and solutions

First Presbyterian Church, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa

First Presbyterian established the Refugee Assistance Commission in the fall of 2015 in response to the global refugee crisis. Their original goal was to open their community as a resettlement site for Syrian refugees. They had done so before, housing Southeast Asians after the Vietnam War.

“We soon learned it’s not done that way anymore,” Hegar said.

Rather than table the idea, the commission expanded its vision and mission to include immigrants already living in the community, thus the beginning of IowaWINs. The vision of the organization is as follows: “That the greater Mount Pleasant community would be an inclusive and hospitable community that welcomes people from across the world looking for a new home.”

To do this, the organization pledged to identify the problems that newcomers face and provide solutions; establish relationships among diverse members of the community; build and maintain the infrastructure and sustainable programs that improve opportunities for current and future generations of immigrants; and provide community educational and cultural outlets so others could learn more about the people who want to call Mount Pleasant home.

They had a warm clothing drive for older English as a Second Language (ESL) students at Lutheran Services in Iowa. Catholic Charities led a presentation about the refugee experience. The local movie theater had a screening of “God Grew Tired of Us,” a 2006 feature-length documentary about three “Lost Boys” from Sudan and their resettlement in America.

The group’s first international potluck was attended by nearly 150 people, and a Soup for Syria Supper generated $1,400. The IowaWINs Holiday Bazaar raised funds for Mayan Hands, a fair-trade organization dedicated to empowering Mayan women, and ArtLife Society, a nonprofit organization for refugees in Greece.

A shift in focus

Then the raid happened.

“Because of all the connections we made through IowaWINs, we were able to reach out to all of those contacts, to bring resources to the church and start helping these families,” Shull said.

This meant utilizing translators to gather and share information and working with immigration lawyers to identify where the men were located – which turned out to be multiple locations in Iowa, as well as one in Wisconsin and another in Illinois. Representatives from the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project were there to explain what needed to be done to get the bond-eligible men out of jail.

According to the organization, posting bond slows down the deportation process. Immigrants who are released on bond can return to their families and obtain legal representation while their case is pending.

Most of the men’s bonds were set in the $10,000 range, with families forced to come up with the full amount because of the flight risk. Some of the families in Mount Pleasant did just that, taking out personal loans or borrowing money at high interest rates. They did this because they were unaware of a bond redetermination hearing.

During a bond redetermination hearing, a federal judge will reconsider the bond amount based on testimony and other documents showing the detainees’ connection to the community.

Hegar said money donated to the church was not used to post bond; instead, funds came from other sources.

Twenty-four of the men arrested that day were reunited with their families, the remaining deported. Yet despite their release, the men were not granted new work permits.

“The first hearing was scheduled for February,” Hegar said. “It was canceled because of the government shutdown.”

Services still ongoing

Meanwhile, families are struggling to make ends meet.

To help, IowaWINs used the donations it received to set up an account for each family to assist with rent, utilities and legal fees. The church also opened a food pantry because of all the non-perishable food items it received the day of the raid and continues to receive from generous donors.

As donations to IowaWINs drop off, the organization is focused on sustainable efforts, launching Nutrimos earlier this year. Nutrimos falls under the IowaWINS umbrella. Its leaders hope it can become a sustaining ministry so IowaWINs can move beyond the response to the ICE Raid to a broader program for immigrants in our community.

“(Nutrimos) means ‘We nourish’ in Spanish because we will nourish people with food and opportunity,” Shull said.

This includes a community gardens, with immigrants taking care of 21 of 30 available plots. Grants from Farm Credit Services and Henry County Master Gardeners provided funding for seeds and tools, with the master gardeners also giving hands-on assistance. The gardens had an abundant harvest and a group of immigrant women will host a class in October on canning and drying foods.

This falls under the education umbrella of Nutrimos, along with programs about immigrant rights and job employment opportunities. The group is brainstorming business opportunities that not only help some of the immigrants in their community find work, but also assist IowaWINs with future costs.

“This isn’t something that happened and now it’s over,” Shull said. “Our families have to face this every day. This will be a continuing issue and we want to be known as a community that wants to make a difference.”

Getting started

If your congregation is interested in helping refugees and immigrants, a place to start is the Community Organization Workbook. Written by Hegar, it can help your congregation get a sense of what’s involved and where to start. You can find the workbook here.

In the section about online giving and social media, Hegar stresses the importance of an online donation link, citing the church ministry weblink through the Presbyterian Foundation.

“It really gave us a home base online,” he said.

Meredith Hines-Dochterman is an award-winning writer and editor living in Iowa. Comments on this story may be sent to robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.