The boy is terrified. He has come thousands of miles running from terrible danger. He has encountered horrors on the way, riding on top of “La Bestia,” the train that carries migrants from Central America through Mexico. He stands in an immigration courtroom and hears the irritated judge threaten him with deportation because he has not been able to find a lawyer. He is staying with distant relatives as he goes through the court process, and they are barely able to feed the extra mouth, let alone pay for a lawyer for him. He is facing the very real possibility of being sent back into territories controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, the organized crime syndicate that murdered his cousin and has threatened to kill him and his family if he doesn’t join up. He knows that they are likely to make an example of him. He feels terribly alone. Even though the translator speaks his language, he feels like no one in this strange land understands the cry of his heart.
This question hangs in the air, ever-present among us after weeks of our time, energy, prayer, and hope were focused on the release of Pastor Max Villatoro. We dared to believe that Max would be returned to his family, to his church, and to his community. But on March 20, the beloved pastor, husband, father, and Iowa City community leader was deported to Honduras. And we are all devastated.
For the last several weeks, members of Central Plains Mennonite Conference (Max’s regional network of churches), Mennonite Church USA (his national denomination), and others from across the country signed petitions, made phone calls, rallied, and made speeches in support of Pastor Max. But despite these efforts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement remained unmoved.
Max was taken into ICE custody on the morning of March 3 just outside his home. He was held for more than two weeks before being sent back to Honduras where he grew up. Max’s childhood years were difficult as his family was poor – a typical situation in a country where the average annual income is $2,070. As a teenager he traveled alone to the city to continue his education, but this proved to be impossible due to financial constraints. At age 20, Max decided to risk the dangerous journey to the United States. And he’s lived here for more than 20 years.
Last week’s last minute funding for the Department of Homeland Security has reminded us of how desperately America needs a long-term solution in the area of immigration. The current approach has failed to control the border, has resulted in de facto amnesty for 11-12 million people (the rough equivalent to the population of Ohio), and isn’t meeting our needs in the area of economic development and national security.
A necessary first step is acknowledging that the deportation of 12 million residents would be logistically impossible, as well as morally reprehensible and economically disastrous. The vast majority of these residents have proven themselves to be valuable members of our communities. We can debate the morality of mass deportation, but its logistical impossibility is grounds for moving on to a serious discussion about how to fix the system we have inherited
A little known fact of Lincoln’s legacy is that he explored the option of deporting slaves until he concluded that mass deportation could not solve the problem of slavery. In the weeks preceding the emancipation proclamation, Lincoln was actively pursuing an effort to deport the African-American slaves to Haiti, Honduras, and other counties in Central and South America. Congress actually appropriated $600,000 to assist Lincoln in deporting slaves to these destinations. Lincoln abandoned these plans only when other countries refused to cooperate. He abandoned them out of logistical, not moral necessity. He concluded that it simply could not be done. Then he moved on to legislation that earned him his reputation as the “great emancipator.”
Tonight, faith leaders and all those who have spent years trying to fix our broken immigration system should feel gratitude toward President Obama. In a primetime address to the nation, the president announced he was taking executive action to relieve some of the suffering caused by the failures of the status quo. Millions of families will no longer live under the daily threat of having their lives torn apart by senseless deportations, which is something all Christians – whether Republican or Democrat – should celebrate. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have spent significant portions of their lives hiding in the shadows, can now enjoy the flourishing God intends for us all. Their joy and well-being must inform our judgments of the president’s action, especially in light of the biblical call to “welcome the stranger.”
Unfortunately, the president’s compassionate actions are creating a political firestorm among some Republicans in Washington. Their anger and antipathy toward the White House are blinding them to the positive effects these measures will have for our society. Even after decades living and working in our nation’s capital, I’m still amazed at the many ways political ideology can prevent us from having “eyes that see” and “ears that hear.” I lament that our political discourse has come to this.
Everyone agrees the only way to find sustainable, long-term solutions is through Congress passing bipartisan legislation. The Senate did exactly that more than 500 days ago, but their honest efforts have languished in the House of Representatives because of Republican intransigence. GOP leaders promised alternative policy ideas; reform garnered widespread, nationwide support — including among a majority of Republicans; faith leaders were hopeful after countless positive conversations with members of Congress; the president even told me that he was “optimistic” about reform after conversations with Speaker John Boehner; the country, and, more importantly immigrant families, patiently waited — yet, the House failed to act.
On Aug. 7 we lit a single white candle at the prayer service welcoming Rosa Robles Loreto into sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. Almost 90 days later, that candle has been joined by five others, representing Luis Lopez Acabal, Beatriz Santiago Ramirez, Francisco Aguirre, Francisco Perez Cordova, and Arturo Hernandez. We are grateful that Beatriz was just granted a stay so that she could return to her home with her two small children, but the rest all remain in sanctuary.
As we approach Rosa’s 90th day in sanctuary, its time to replace the nearly burned down candle, but the light of radical Christian hospitality continues to not only burn bright, but spread throughout the nation.
[Gilberto] shared about the man who had been deported at 51 years old after living in the U.S. for 50 years. Because this man’s parents came to the U.S. when he was 6 months old, he knew no other home than that of the U.S. When he landed in Tijuana, it not only felt like a foreign land, but he didn’t even know Spanish.
He shared about the U.S. military veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan but after serving his time in war zones, was deported to Mexico.
He shared about the man who had recently been deported and was now desperately trying to return to his wife and young children in the U.S.
With each story, the layers of isolation, dehumanization, and misunderstanding began to be peeled back. We had all heard the stories of deportation in the headlines, but none of us had come face to face with the humans behind the story.
Mesmerized by this sage who cast such a strong aroma of Jesus, we asked, “What would you encourage us to say to our congregations regarding the plight of the immigrant?”
He quickly responded with words I’ll never forget:
“Tell them to read their Bibles. Jesus told us to care for three types of people: the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. It’s been 2,000 years and we’re still doing a pretty bad job.”