The highest calling of our civil government is to enable people to flourish, secure in communities with liberty and justice for all. In pursuit of that goal, they must at times take appropriate action in pursuit of public safety. However, as the recent police shootings in Chicago and elsewhere have shown, civil servants can commit injustices in the pursuit of their goals. I fear that this happened last March when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested more than 2,000 “criminal aliens” in a sweep it called Operation Cross Check. I fear it is happening again in recent raids to deport Central American women and children seeking asylum and safety from violence.
One of those swept up last March was beloved Iowa City Mennonite pastor Max Villatoro. ICE asserted that Pastor Max was deported because he presented a “public safety threat.” This could not be further from the truth. Pastor Max is a respected community leader, devoted husband, and loving father of four. His family and community have been devastated by the separation.
Max came to the U.S. from Honduras 20 years ago. He had Temporary Protected Status for a time, but lost that status after receiving bad counsel from a lawyer. In 1999, he was picked up on a charge related to improper identification and document fraud, a common infraction for those unable to obtain legal documentation. Around the same time, he was charged with DUI. ICE argues that Pastor Max’s distant criminal history makes him a priority for deportation.
I want to be clear: DUI is a serious infraction. But in recent years, Max’s life had demonstrated the transforming power of God to heal and redeem. Not only does he eschew alcohol use for himself, but he reaches out with compassionate hands to those who struggle with addictions. He has become a pillar of faith in his community, lending a helping hand to people in need. His positive impact on the community in Iowa City is illustrated by the thousands who rallied to his side to try to stop his deportation, including more than 47,000 who signed petitions calling for his release.
The leaders of the Central Plains Mennonite Conference had mentored Pastor Max over the past several years, trying to help him obtain a legal immigration status. But, after court cases and appeals, they were unsuccessful. Millions of undocumented immigrants have run into similar roadblocks, with no path to legal status.
President Obama’s November 2014 executive action was intended to help alleviate the pressure on some of these families. Under the executive action guidelines, Pastor Max should not have been a top priority for deportation. President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson must hold ICE officials accountable to follow these guidelines.
In a just society, past mistakes should not tear a father away from his children. The consequences of committing a crime should fit the severity of the crime and should leave open the possibility for redemption and the righting of relationships. I plead for ICE to take into account the totality of a person’s circumstances before taking the drastic measure of separating fathers from children, wives from husbands. .
I implore U.S. immigration officials to immediately return Pastor Max to his family and his congregation in Iowa City. Further, I implore them to reconsider the case of each individual arrested in such immigration raids. May God work in the hearts of those who have the power to secure the return of all those, like Max, whose recent record and conduct make them an asset to their communities.
To this end, as instructed in Christian scripture, I pray for “all those in positions of government authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness,” I Timothy 2:2. Let’s stand with Pastor Max, return a father to his children and return to our country a man who wants nothing more than to live a peaceful and quiet life and to help those who God puts in his path. I pray that the day may come soon when I can sit in the front row at Iglesia Menonita Torre Fuerte in Iowa City and hear the preaching and teaching of this faithful man of God.