Iowa bishop brings greeting from Pope Francis to ICE detention center

Pope Francis waves as he leaves his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 6. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CNS) -- Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines passed through security and walked down a long hallway escorted by guards, the door mechanically closing behind him.

On a chilly morning Dec. 7, he was heading to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, a section within the Polk County Jail, where about 30 people were held.

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The section holds ICE detainees and some inmates from the jail's general population.

He brought Our Lady of Guadalupe prayer cards and a desire to pray with and hear the stories of the men in the detention center as part of Pope Francis' two-year effort to raise awareness and compassion toward immigrants and migrants, called "Share the Journey."

"As many of us prepare for the Christmas season and spending time with our families, I wanted to come and spend time with people who are separated from their families at the immigration detention center," he said in prepared remarks.

After his visit, Bishop Pates at a news conference called on Congress to pass the proposed DREAM Act -- Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act -- and offer protection for young people whose immigration status falls under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

"Just because we don't have papers doesn't mean we're criminal."

Chief Joe Simon of the Polk County Sheriff's Office, who is a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in Des Moines, escorted the bishop into the "pod," or living space of the inmates. As the bishop entered, he glanced about at two floors of rooms facing a guard station. Each room held two bunk beds and all were missing the wall facing the guard station.

Bishop Pates took a seat below a small TV secured to the cinder-block wall high above him. Twenty men -- about two-thirds of those in the pod that day -- filed in.

With Father Luis Mejia Mejia interpreting, he began: "We are here to represent Pope Francis. Pope Francis has a great love for every human person no matter where they are at. He wants to make sure we are sharing your journey.

"You're important to him, to me, and we ask God to be a companion on your journey, as difficult as it may be," he said, leaning forward. "We are your companions, your friends. We're not here to judge you. We have a place in our hearts for each one of you."

Deacon Dennis Wright read from the Book of Exodus and Bishop Pates shared words of hope from the Catholic Church, taken from the "Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration" co-written by the Catholic bishops of Mexico and the United States. The prayerful refrain "Estamos juntos en el camino" translated as "We are together on the journey."

Then, Bishop Pates invited the inmates to share their stories, and what he heard was a cry for help.

"We need more rehab on drugs," said one man. "My addiction is meth. I keep coming back because I can't get into treatment. We need treatment in jail."

"We're not getting the help we need," said another man who said he struggles with mental health. "At the end of the day, you go home. I stay here," he said, facing his demons.

As at many jails, there aren't enough resources to address the needs of those who are addicted or suffering mental illnesses, Chief Simon said later.

A third man ripped from his family is facing deportation because of a first time offense that, he said, he thinks another person might have gotten a deferred judgment on simply because of how he looks.

"Even if you make a deal, they look at you as a different person," he said.

He's scared and worried about his wife and two young children.

"If I get sent from this country to another country, how are they going to make it?" he asked. "Why don't they give us a chance? A lot of us don't have a criminal record. Just because we don't have papers doesn't mean we're criminal.

"I know the prayer is going to help," he continued. "God will always find a way. But sometimes people don't think about it. They don't see inside of us. They need to see what our family really means."

Fearing criminals and a lack of jobs in his country, he said, are "why we came here, to look for a better future for our families." He dreams of his children getting a good education and going to college.

"That opportunity is not available in my country," he said. "I don't get it. We all need a second chance."

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