A little over two months ago, Pastor Noe Carias went to a regularly scheduled Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-in in Los Angeles, with reason to believe that he would go out with his family for lunch afterward. He is married to a U.S. citizen, has never committed a crime, and was actively running a small construction business and pastoring a thriving Assemblies of God congregation in the Echo Park area of LA. He had a pending court case to remove 22-year-old deportation orders, stemming from his unauthorized arrival in the U.S. at age 13, escaping kidnappers in Guatemala. He had previously been granted three stays of deportation while the case was going through court. He had an excellent lawyer, and was accompanied by an ecumenical group of pastors and Christian leaders praying in front of the ICE offices.
But it wasn’t a typical check in. Pastor Carias unexpectedly was clapped into handcuffs and taken away to the detention center in Adelanto, where there has been documented evidence that the food often contains worms and the temperature is kept in the 50s. I was in Colorado at the time; I could hear his children wailing when the bewildered prayer vigil leaders called me.
We were in shock. Pastor Carias and his family had done everything right. We in his network of supporters had done everything that should have resulted in a just outcome. We had to face that these were not normal times; we had to examine our methods.
Timeline of a Movement
Matthew 25 SoCal had been accompanying Pastor Carias and his family since March, after Vicky Carias contacted us asking for assistance in his case. Pastores Melvin and Ada Valiente, co-chairs of Mateo 25, quickly began to organize a united movement to help Pastor Carias. Pastor Melvin arrived in this country from Guatemala in 1981 when he was a youth during the civil war, and Pastora Ada arrived from Nicaragua as a child in 1972. They both understood the experience of terror and violent chaos; they both knew how a child fleeing Central America would feel and how little that child would know about how to seek asylum if — as was Pastor Carias’ situation — he or she did not have any contact with family.
In March, Matthew 25 SoCal went into high gear. Here are just a handful of the steps we took to ensure Pastor Carias’ protection:
- We obtained letters from the Protestant leaders of every major religious denomination in Southern California and from the Catholic Bishop of Orange County.
- Pastor Carias was accompanied to his April check in by a group of Christian leaders, including President Mark Labberton of Fuller Theological Seminary, Dr. Sergio Navarrete of Assemblies of God, Pastor Ada Valiente of Mateo25, and Rev. Dr. Jesse Miranda, a member of the national/international executive committee of the Assemblies of God; there, Pastor Carias received his third stay of deportation.
- The group set up a meeting with the deputy director of ICE at the Assemblies of God offices in La Puente to understand their policies and begin a dialogue. In those conversations, we learned that the deputy director’s father had been an evangelical pastor from Mexico and that he currently attends an evangelical congregation.
- We worked with the largest networks of Hispanic pastors and leaders in Southern California, COPALA and La Red de Pastores y Lideres del Sur de California, as well as UNIDOS, a primarily Apostolic network, to organize regular prayer gatherings and to collect signatures on petitions.
- We reached out to national allies like Sojourners, the Christian Community Development Association, and NaLEC (the National Coalition of Latino Evangelicals) to lift up his case to a national audience.
- We also used our social media committee at Matthew 25 SoCal to get the news out, garnering letters and calls from throughout the region.
But on that day in late July, we wondered whether all of this work had failed. Would Pastor Carias ultimately be deported anyway?
A New Era of ICE Enforcement
We had learned that ICE, for the first time in more than 20 years, had internal mandates to detain and deport people whose only offense was an immigration violation – regardless of the status of their case. To add insult to injury, ICE gave a statement that Pastor Carias was an untrustworthy individual who had entered illegally multiple times giving different names and nationalities; they omitted that all three of his deportations were while he was a child or youth – twice when he was a teenager and his final one when he was 20.
We knew we could not give up. We stood on the word, “We are troubled on every side yet not distressed; we are perplexed but not in despair; Persecuted but not forsaken; cast down but not destroyed; always bearing about the in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifest in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)
So instead of despairing, we took the campaign to another level.
Dr. Sergio Navarette, superintendent of the Asambleas de Dios for Southern California, and Dr. Gabriel Salguero, executive director of NaLEC who is also with the Assemblies of God, brought together the 14 Hispanic district superintendents across the country and together they petitioned the general superintendent of the denomination, which boasts 3.5 million adherents in the U.S. alone and more than 67 million worldwide. While the Assemblies of God has not been known for standing for social justice in recent years — and there is still a level of separation between the Spanish-speaking Asambleas de Dios and the English-speaking Assemblies of God churches in the U.S. — Dr. George O. Wood, the English-speaking general superintendent, responded with passionate commitment. He wrote a letter to the White House, and then followed up with a visit. When that did not show any results, he led the whole national convention in prayer for Pastor Carias and his family, and then published a statement that read, in part:
Pastor Carias’ situation is not in accordance with the President’s previous statement about focusing efforts on violent criminals who are here illegally. This pastor is certainly not in that category.
I would implore this administration to take into account the special circumstances surrounding the case of Pastor Noe Carias and grant a stay of deportation for him to remain with his wife and children and continue to be a voice of hope in Los Angeles.
National Pressure, Local Persistence
When our meeting with the director of ICE was abruptly canceled, it was a hard blow.
Still determined, we reached out to Matthew 25 leaders around the country in congressional districts with a member of Congress who was on the Homeland Security Committee to see if we could garner support and pressure from above. Vicky Carias was like the persistent widow, speaking to whomever would listen. Pastora Ada Valiente contacted the mayor of Los Angeles and the Guatemalan Consulate to advocate directly for Pastor Carias, and they gladly accepted. Hundreds of emails and calls from Christians all over the country came into the ICE director’s office — and we had direct evidence that the director and deputy director were actually reading and listening to them.
Local and national media — from CNN to Brave New Films — picked up the story.
Still, weeks went by without a response as Pastor Carias became sick from the terrible conditions at Adelanto and his wife and children went through psychological torment. It made me remember an earlier time in my life when I was a missionary in the Philippines and part of the pro-democracy movement against the Marcos dictatorship — a time when advocacy had little power and families were often destroyed.
Matthew 25 SoCal was able to hang in there and keep struggling partially because of the unusual Ephesians 2/John 17:21 character of our network: immigrant and second-generation Hispanic evangelicals working together across lines with multicultural and Anglo evangelical and moderate mainline churches. It’s a lively stew in which we are committed to prioritizing the perspective of those who are most affected and walk together in intimate solidarity. The miracles of faith required to work together across the lines fuel our capacity to sustain the struggle. We hope that this can become a replicable model across the country.
Last Friday, Sept. 22, Pastor Carias was suddenly and unexpectedly released. The video of his children and wife running to him and all of them crying was achingly beautiful. We do not know how the case will proceed and whether we will ultimately be able to prevent his deportation.
Yet, for the moment, we have tasted justice, a foretaste of the fulfillment of the promise that, “Justice will roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”