A Pastor's Petition

By Matthew Soerens 3-29-2010


Cesar and Angelica first contemplated migrating to the U.S. from their native land of Guatemala more than two decades ago. Angelica's sister, a U.S. citizen, filed a petition on her behalf in 1986, when the couple's eldest child was just 14 -- but that was just the first step in a very long process. It was 1998 before that petition finally became current, so Cesar, Angelica, and their daughter, Vanessa, migrated to the United States as Lawful Permanent Residents. Having finished seminary in Guatemala, Cesar began a Nazarene church in the western suburbs of Chicago shortly after arrival.

The couple's son, Enrique, had surpassed 20 years of age by the time the petition was finally current, so he had to stay in Guatemala. His father petitioned for him nearly as soon as he had arrived, but with the knowledge that the backlog for an unmarried adult child of a lawful permanent resident might be a decade more -- and that if Enrique decided to marry in the meantime, he would be penalized and the petition would be canceled.

Three years later, Cesar's new church, which ministered primarily to Mexican immigrants, was growing, and Cesar found that they needed a worship leader. Keenly missing his son, Cesar worked with an attorney and his denomination to bring Enrique to the U.S. on a religious worker visa to serve as the church's music minister. The family was together again at last, and the church shared the gospel with more and more people.

One element of pastoring a primarily Latino church has been that Cesar has had to wrestle regularly with the United States' broken immigration system. Many of the folks in his church lack legal status. In addition to the normal pastoral duties of preaching, discipling, and counseling, Cesar also has to minister to the unique needs of undocumented families: lacking Social Security numbers, they cannot drive lawfully, finding work can be uniquely challenging, and they are especially prone to exploitation, since their unlawful status makes them wary of complaining about unjust conditions. Many live in fear, afraid to be detected and deported back to the countries from which they came, often in a desperate attempt to flee extreme poverty.

One of the key families in the church was recently plunged into crisis when the mother, who lacked legal status, was detained at her workplace, transferred thousands of miles away, and detained in prison-like conditions by immigration authorities. With her husband at work -- trying to support the family on a single income -- it often fell to the couple's 13-year-old daughter and to the church family to take care of her two younger siblings. After a month in prison, the mother was given two months to pack up and leave the United States; her husband and U.S. citizen children decided they would all go with her to Mexico, which meant shutting down the husband's successful landscaping business, which had been employing several others in the community. Cesar's church also lost one if its most active families.

The immigration issue has hit Cesar's own family, too. His son Enrique worked lawfully for five years as the church's worship pastor under a religious worker visa, but then the visa expired. Enrique tried to renew it and apply for a green card, consulting with an attorney, but they could not get it renewed in time, and Enrique fell out of status. Enrique continued his work at the church -- never working other than in the worship pastor role for which he entered -- and tried to determine the best way to get back into status. Eventually an attorney explained to him that he would have to return to Guatemala to reapply, but that by leaving the U.S. he would trigger a bar to his re-entry. His best hope for legal status was the petition his father filed for him upon the family's arrival in the United States, which would still be several years coming to resolution.

Enrique has joined the ranks of the undocumented and will remain in that status until his father's petition -- now on a slightly faster track since Cesar recently became a naturalized citizen, but still unavailable -- might provide an option, or until laws are changed. The entire family serves in the church, worshiping God and encouraging others to love God, to love their neighbors, to teach children to love and know the Lord, and to work hard in their new country. They yearn and pray for the day when the law will allow their entire family to be right before the law. "We want for the four of us to be here together, legally," Cesar explains.

Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009). He lives in suburban Chicago in an intentional community called Parkside. The names and certain identifying characteristics of the individuals in this factual account have been changed to protect their privacy.

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This account is taken from Voices of Immigration, a campaign of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) aimed at highlighting the stories of immigrants in our country. Believing that every person is made in the image of God, we seek to restore the human element to the conversation around immigration reform. Each day this week a new story will be highlighted on God's Politics, with additional ones posted throughout March at CCIR's Web site: www.faithandimmigration.org.

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