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Charity versus Justice: End of year reflections on immigrant rights work in Iowa

Charity versus Justice: End of year reflections on immigrant rights work in Iowa

Published: December 21, 2017
Iowa Centennial group Nov 2017

Staff and volunteers celebrate AFSC's Centennial in Des Moines on November 18, 2017. Standing from left: Fabiola Schirrmeister, Jon Krieg, Isabel Conn, Jody Mashek, Gabriela Flora, Joyce Ajlouny, Jeanette Visguerra, Berenice Nava and Sandra Sanchez. Front row from left: Erica Johnson, Evan Sundermeyer and Melissa Stoner. More photos here.

Photo: AFSC / Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz

By Erica Johnson, Iowa Immigrant Rights Program Director

Looking back on the last year of immigrants rights work in Iowa, I find it hard to quantify what our accomplishments were. I find myself having to sit down and look at a calendar because it's too much of a blur to pick out specific moments. That might be because so much of our work was defensive: fighting back against the extreme persecution of immigrants under the Trump administration. This kind of work, responding to urgent needs, is exhausting and never ending.

We did a lot in 2017. We rebuilt safety networks around the state with a hotline for reporting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activity. In a moment of devastation, families who have had their breadwinners detained have gotten support from local community response teams, helping to pay rent and utilities, buying diapers and food and rides to pick up stranded vehicles.

We also mobilized, marched, and trained leaders, and we engaged new strategies for stopping anti-immigrant policies and changing the narrative to be more welcoming to all. We even built a network of faith communities who have revitalized the historic sanctuary movement by offering a safe space of refuge to people in Iowa who fear or face deportation. This work echos the prophetic resistance of other movements across the country.

I recently saw a tweet from a pastor of an evangelical church in one of the suburbs of Des Moines that described Hope (faith), Love (charity), and Peace (well-being) as characteristics of the Christmas spirit of Christians year-round. While I don’t know this pastor and I certainly can't speak to his experience or the context of the tweet, it did stick with me, particularly the part describing Love as charity.

This view seems to leave Justice out of the equation. Cornel West says justice is “what love looks like in public.” I can agree that both charity and justice are needed and challenge more faith communities to engage in work that demands justice, not just charity, in their Christian public witness.

Advocacy and community organizing groups believe that government institutions, on all levels, have a key role in delivering systemic justice. The delivery of justice this year has been lacking, to say the least. For immigrants, nearly every week there was some new blow taking fear and uncertainty to new heights for families all over the country.

There were also some courageous examples of resistance in the midst of it all. DREAMers refused to be used as legislative bargaining chips, even though that may mean that they are forced to return to the shadows as the threat of deportation hits them, as it has their families, for so many years. Communities are coming together to provide safety nets and sanctuary for those who are victims of the enforcement of unjust laws.

That’s why it was so disappointing to see the Des Moines City Council neglect their role in bringing systemic justice to our community pleading for clarity and safety. Rather than passing a policy that would limit cooperation between local police and federal immigration agents, the Council approved a symbolic proclamation and later a resolution that no one asked for and that provides neither charity nor justice.

Optimism and hope are traits that community organizers have in abundance. So as we move into the new year, while I know that we can expect to continue working on components of charity with immigrant rights leaders, organization and faith groups, I’m hopeful that 2018 will bring more justice from those who control the oppressive systems that have kept justice from being delivered to those who demand it.

For more information about AFSC's work in Iowa and to get involved, please contact Erica at