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Local faith community’s support helped in release of detained refugee

01 8.31.17_veronica.gg.bridge HALFVeronica Zapeda, a 29-year-old Salvadoran refugee and mother of three, is pictured at the Golden Gate Bridge during a visit to the Bay Area after an outpouring of support from the faith community helped secure her release from an immigration detention center. During her visit she received a blessing at St. Peter Church in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo)


August 31, 2017
Christina Gray

A young and ailing Salvadoran refugee languishing in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Bakersfield was released without bond on July 28 by a San Francisco immigration judge who noted the presence of nearly 100 members of the local faith community packing the courtroom.

Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks released 29-year-old mother of three Veronica Zapeda more than six months after she was detained at the U.S. border and sent to Mesa Verde Detention Center after attempting to escape her violent husband for the second time, Natalie Terry of St. Agnes Parish told Catholic San Francisco.

“The judge saw that Veronica has a lot of support,” said Terry, director of the St. Agnes-based Ignatian Spiritual Life Center.

Terry and other Catholic parishioners, sisters and clergy from St. Agnes, St. John of God, St. Peter, St. Ignatius and St. Dominic parishes were part of a local interfaith campaign led by Faith in Action Bay Area, a faith-based organizing network of more than 40 congregations, and San Francisco-based Pangea Legal Services.

Pangea is a nonprofit law firm created four years ago to provide access to direct representation to immigrant communities, particularly in the area of deportation defense.

“It was a beautiful show of love in action,” Lorena Melgarejo, the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s coordinator of parish outreach, said about the response from the faith community to the plight of a woman they had never met before.

Terry said she and others at St. Agnes learned about Veronica’s situation through Pangea, which helped form a Rapid Response Network in San Francisco earlier this year. The Rapid Response Network is made up of trained volunteers, many of them from Catholic parishes, dispatched to the site of possible immigration “raids” to provide legal and moral witness to what is said and done.

Pangea started a hotline pilot program at Mesa Verde Detention Center in an effort to get legal help to those already in detention and Zapeda called that hotline.

The young mother had a heart condition and had several heart attacks in detention but was not receiving medical attention, according to Terry. Pangea took her case and contacted Faith in Action Bay Area, which rallied the local faith community. Members wrote letters and cards of support to Zapeda and signed a petition for the judge to release her on humanitarian parole, according to Lisa Marie Wong, solidarity coordinator for Faith in Action.

Information provided to Catholic San Francisco by Wong said Zapeda, who was born in El Salvador, has been a refugee most of her life. She fled her home country in 2005 to escape gang violence and family brutality and ended up in Mexico where she met and married her husband Julio, who beat her regularly.

Her children were her only reprieve, but twice she attempted to cross the border into the U.S. and was deported back to El Salvador where her father beat her for leaving her husband.

Zapeda told immigration officers that she was afraid to return home which should have earned her a chance toward applying for asylum, but she never got that opportunity and she returned to Mexico.

When she ran again in January, it was her children who convinced her that her life was in danger. She was detained at the border and this time met with an asylum officer. She passed a “credible fear” test, but full asylum was no longer available to her because of the removal order and she was sent to Mesa Verde.

Pangea got an immigration hearing for Zapeda in San Francisco, and the faith community was invited to show up to support her as she appeared by live video stream from Mesa Verde.

“It was an emotional moment for so many of us who had been following her story to see her live for the first time,” said Wong.

The judge told Zapeda that many people from the community were present to support her and turned the courtroom’s livestreaming camera around to show her the crowd.

According to a Faith in Action newsletter sent on July 28, the government attorney argued that Veronica was a flight risk because she had no community ties to the U.S. “Do you know any of the people in this courtroom personally?” he asked her. “No,” she replied, “but they have been supporting me and praying for me.” She held up a large manila envelope filled with the letters and cards she had received.

In releasing her, Judge Marks said she trusted that the community would help her get to her sister’s home in Houston and waived bond.

“The community has sacrificed so much of its time here at court today,” said Judge Marks. “I won’t require them to sacrifice their money as well.”

Zapeda’s case has been moved to the Texas immigration court, where Pangea will continue to represent her.

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