SANDRA ZABALETA, wife of Jorge Vides; mother of Eric Vides

It was a very normal day and Eric, 12 years old, had gone off to school. At 9:00 am there was a knock at the door of their apartment and Jorge opened the door to two strangers. They immediately swooshed into the room and asked impatiently, “What is your name?” “Where is Sandra Zabaleta?” They were loud and insistent. They repeated the questions over and over. They did not identify themselves in any way. Later they showed Jorge the paper in their hands with Sandra’s picture and description. It said she was a fugitive from the law, that she had an outstanding deportation order from 2003, but Jorge didn’t know that when they were interrogating him.

Sandra was in the bedroom and her heart filled with fear. She didn’t know about the paper they held in their hands or the deportation order either, but the tone and the questions were enough to terrorize her.

The strangers continued to badger Jorge about Sandra’s location. She could hear them confronting Jorge and decided to go out into the living room. She came out of the hallway and said, “I’m Sandra Zabaleta. What do you want?”

“Do you know who we are?” one of the men said.

She shook her head. He pulled back his outer jacket to reveal and ICE badge.

“Do you know why we’re here?” he said.

She shook her head.

With an annoying cockiness he said, “We’re here to arrest you. You are a fugitive and we’re going to take you to jail to be deported.” They put her hands behind her back and handcuffed her and took her to jail.

Jorge was beside himself. He had a history of alcohol abuse and depression and was gravely ill several years ago. Since that time, he had been taking medication and not drinking. Whenever he had bad bouts of depression, Sandra was the strong one and she would encourage him to get out of the house or do something. She was the one who encouraged them to come to our English classes several years ago. They always came together, the parents studying English and Eric part of the children’s educational program.

Sandra was arrested on Wednesday. Later that day Jorge went to the lawyer that he had used to adjust his immigration status. The lawyer reviewed the information about Sandra’s case and said that he did not see any options for her. At best, he could appeal the case and stall for a little more time. Ultimately, she would have to go back to Guatemala.

The news was overwhelming for Jorge. He was distraught. What was he going to do! On Thursday he came to the English classes looking for me. When he couldn’t find me, he left a note asking for help for Sandra.

Friday evening and Saturday his friends and relatives said he spent time distributing Sandra’s clothes, the pots and pans and other household items. He did not seem overwhelmed with depression. He called his brothers in El Salvador. They said he had a good chat with each of them. Around 10:00 pm on Saturday; he told Eric that it was time for bed and to please shut the
door so the sounds of the TV wouldn’t bother him.

Around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, Eric heard sounds like his father was vomiting so he went into the bedroom. There he found his father bleeding to death after stabbing himself with two knives. Eric frantically called a neighbor. The neighbor came in and said that Eric was clutching his father, covered in blood saying, “Don’t die ‘popi’, don’t die!” The neighbor called 911. When the paramedics arrived, they pronounced Jorge Vides dead. A social worker was called and she drove Eric, in the middle of the night, to the home of relatives where he stayed until his mother was released from jail.

Sandra was in Polk County when Jorge committed suicide. Someone came to her cell at 4:00 am in the morning. They said, “We have some bad news. Your husband killed himself.” She remembers a cold numbness, a profound shock, no words came to her.

“Do you want to talk with someone?” the person asked her.

She nodded yes and she was taken to a common area in the jail. A Spanish speaking person spent time talking with her. Sandra said the woman was kind and expressed her sympathy. Later in the early hours on Sunday morning, they took Sandra back to her cell where she stayed until she was released for humanitarian reasons. On Monday around 4:30 pm, she was finally reunited with Eric.

Tuesday night at English class everyone was very concerned, trying to put the pieces of the story together. They called a cousin of Jorge’s who was married to someone at class and we found the phone number of another cousin where Sandra and Eric were staying. The participants of the English classes, both students and teachers, became an important support system for Sandra and Eric. They provided love, flowers, meals and gathered donations to pay for the funeral and Sandra’s lawyer fees. Jorge and Sandra had attended the Catholic Church, but they felt an attachment to the United Methodist church and me through our English classes and the community that has formed there.

I called Sandra on Wednesday morning to offer my condolences and to see if I could do anything to help. At that time, she was at the funeral home and welcomed my offer to be with her. A cousin from Washington State, Melvin, was there when I arrived as well as several other cousins. He was very bilingual, bicultural and helped them negotiate the funeral arrangements. Equally important, he had a credit card so details about the funeral could go forward. Without a method of payment, the family would have had another obstacle to tackle.

They family asked me to officiate at the funeral. I had never officiated at a funeral in Spanish, nor one for a victim of suicide; but my message was clear. In this gathered community of Catholics, Pentecostals, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventist, Assembly of God and United Methodist from El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the United States; we are the body of Christ for each other. Together we can face the challenges of this death and be support for one another. God’s love will not fail!!

In my conversations with the family members, I was fascinated by the family structure. During the war in El Salvador, Jorge and Alejandro, a younger brother, went to Guatemala where they were safer to live with aunts and uncles. In order for them to go to school and work they needed documents which showed they were Guatemalans. So cousin Melvin’s father adopted Jorge and another uncle adopted Jorge’s brother, Alejandro. That made Melvin Jorge’s cousin by blood and brother by adoption. Jorge was brother to Alejandro by blood and cousin by adoption. The rich interweaving of relationships was fascinating – double duty strength. The strength of these family bonds sustained Jorge throughout his life; Sandra and Eric through the funeral and will continue to be equally vital in the future.

Sonia Parras-Konrad accepted Sandra’s case and is working on a very ‘creative’ defense for her to continue in the United States. The chances are slim that it will work, but Sonia, who is well-known in Iowa for her work with the under-age workers at Agriprocessors in Postville, continues to be hopeful. She is seeking a U-Visa for Sandra and many people, including Bishop Trimble, wrote letters in her support.

When Sandra was released from jail for humanitarian reasons, she was told she would be deported in three months. She was told not to leave Des Moines without express written permission from ICE. Sandra was grateful she did not have to wear an ankle bracelet with a GPS monitoring device like the women in Postville. She was to report on April 2, one month, with her Guatemalan passport in hand, which can only be attained in Chicago. She was to report on May 2, two months, with two airplane tickets to Guatemalan in hand showing that she was going to leave the U. S. prior to June 2, the third month.

Sonia, the lawyer, applied for Sandra to have an extension so she could have time to work on the case. Sonia was told that ICE would respond to the extension application before March 29. On April 1, Sonia contacted the new official in the ICE office and was told there was no application for an extension for Sandra Zabaleta anywhere to be found. He had no idea what had happened to the original application and that was that. There was nothing to be done. Sandra would have to buy the tickets and prepare to leave.
Sonia got on the phone and continued calling until she talked with someone in Washington who approved a 6 month extension for Sandra. We all breathed a sigh of relief. We hoped that would give Sonia enough time to put this difficult case together. We received even better news when a cousin drove Sandra to Omaha to do the paper work to make the extension official. The ICE official said, “Six months, oh that’s not very long to get all of this done. Do you want to make it for one year?” POR SUPUESTO!!! Of course, THANK YOU, JESUS~!
With a year extension, the lawyer has filed the paperwork for Sandra to receive a work
permit. She is currently still waiting.

Sandra, along with all of her supporters, doesn’t know if she has a better chance of winning the case that Sonia is preparing or if we should continue to pray for Comprehensive Immigration Reform so we’re keeping all the airwaves to God filled in both directions.

July 2009

Rev. Barb Dinnen

Comunidad de Fe Las Américas
Iglesia Metodista Unida
8th and College Streets
(in Trinity United Methodist Church, 1548 8th)
P.O. Box 41006; Des Moines, Iowa 50311
515-280-8426