A continued call to action: justice for the undocumented

IrisDeLeonHartshorn_2015FebIris De León-Hartshorn is the director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA.

Like many of you I was saddened to hear about the deportation of Max Villatoro, but not surprised. In the 1920s, there was an increase of Mexicans migrating to California and other parts of the southwest United States. In 1930, when the consequences of the depression began to be felt, civic and other organizations pressured state and government officials to do something about the “Mexican problem.”  The solution that the government offered was what is known today as “round-ups.” Mothers and fathers; both documented and undocumented immigrants; along with legal United States citizens where picked up at their places of employment, markets, walking along the streets, etc. They were put on a bus and deported, sometimes being dropped off in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. Many families were torn apart and suffered further economic hardships.

We may say this just doesn’t happen today, but don’t be so sure. In Pennsylvania, I met with mushroom farm migrant workers in tiny cramped houses owned by the companies who employed them. All of them—even one young man who was a United States citizen—lived in daily fear of deportation.

What is happening now in the United States is that we have an executive order from President Obama’s administration outlining deportation priorities, and the enforcement arm of our government—Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—that feels they can ignore those orders and decide for themselves who is deported. We can convince ourselves that deportation decisions have gone through “legal” channels, but I would contend that those legal channels are structured around a racist ideology. The same ideology that allowed the round-ups in the 1930s is the same ideology we see today.

Jesus spoke to and confronted the institutions of his time, especially when it came to the oppression of those most vulnerable.  As Christians we are called to demonstrate God’s love and to speak and confront unjust systems. Our call is not to decide whether what people do is legal or not; our call is to speak and empower the most vulnerable. Our call is to speak truth to unjust systems and ideologies that are racist.

Each day, families in our church communities are being torn apart. Children are left with one parent or, in other cases, left as orphans and put into foster care. There are many people throughout our denomination that work daily with immigrants in their congregations and in detention centers. I cannot name all of them, but I want our church to be aware of at least some of these saints among us. Madeline Maldonado, a pastor from Fort Myers, Florida, who works tirelessly with immigrants in her congregation and at one time had to say goodbye to half the members of her congregation within a year due to deportations. Anton Flores, who founded the Alterna community in LaGrange, Georgia to provide a myriad of services for immigrants, from detention center visits to advocacy. Tina Stoltzfus Schlabach from Shalom Mennonite Church in Tucson who ministers to immigrants at the Florence Detention Center and supports Casa Esperanza, a home that offers people who have just been released from detention a safe place to stay until they can be reunited with others or find a place to live on their own. Sarah Jackson from Denver who uses her apartment as a place of hospitality and hosts people who are visiting families in detention and immigrants that are released and in transition. Her home has become a place of respite called Casa de Paz. Lupe Aguilar, who pastors Iglesia Menonita Rey de Gloria on the border in Texas and ministers to the undocumented by providing everything from basic household needs to advocacy.  These are just a few of the saints among us.

Pastor Max Villatoro’s case and recent deportation has brought to the forefront that undocumented people Max Villatoroare part of our church. And not only that, they are mothers, fathers, pastors, and important members of their local communities and area conferences.  We are grateful for the response from the church that poured out after our call to action. Together you partnered to make thousands of calls to ICE and to produce several petitions and pleas to government officials. Although the result was not what we hoped (we received word yesterday that Pastor Max has been removed from the United States and deported to Honduras), we hope that this story will serve as a wake-up call to all of us across the church who have the ability to advocate for more just immigration policies in our country. May we must not lose sight of all the other families that go unnamed and who are being torn apart in this tragic situation every day.

May God grant us grace and the courage to act in the face of injustice.

Learn more: At the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix, the Delegate Assembly affirmed a new resolution on immigration justice. Read the resolution, which includes a list of resources to learn more, online. You can also check out Radical Hospitality: Responding to the Issue of Immigration, a six-week video curriculum for congregations and other groups.

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4 thoughts on “A continued call to action: justice for the undocumented

  1. The removal of Pastor Villatoro is a human tragedy, but as a long-time immigration lawyer in California (claiming no familiarity with the file, which always calls for circumspection) I object to the characterization of the event as racist and the attempt of Iris — and other political liberals — to effectively give President Obama a “pass” when it comes to acts of the Executive Branch such as this. There is a blanket policy of President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security to prioritize “criminals” for removal (deportation), notwithstanding his recent executive order. That the prioritization instrument is an unduly blunt one is evident in cases such as this where there is a harsh result disproportionate to the case for national “security.” DHS acts as an imperial power with little accountability, but that is not _despite_ the policies of the present administration but with the full knowledge and acquiescence and direction of that administration. Also, the persistent use of the word “undocumented” is misleading and not helpful. There are many migrants to the U.S. who come here illegally (chiefly from Mexico), and they have no means to obtain documents–really they are “undocumentable.” Whether all who enter should be able to obtain lawful residence is something the church has not spoken to (such a policy of “open borders” would raise similar issues nationally to the issues that would be raised raise if you or I opened our homes to any homeless person who wanted to stay there). The problem that Mennonites too often ignore–indeed that many benefit from it–is that we live in an economic system dependent on cheap labor which attracts illegal entrants. Does the system deal humanely with those who have built lives and raised families in the U.S.? No. Should it? Yes. Are some bureaucrats and persons in authority racist? Yes. But the idea that the problem raised by the removal of Pastor Villatoro is a problem of racism or a problem that can be solved merely by “documentation” is a tired and ultimately destructive canard of the political Left, and a dead end, that we as Christians should resist.

  2. This incident, and other incidents raise a few questions for me. First, if the Mennonite Church recognized this man’s credentials to be a pastor, why did they not reach out and help him secure the documentation required. There are special immigration statuses for Religious Workers and Pastors. Second, as the old movie Hazel’s People painfully point out, Mennonites, as historic agriculturalists, have some culpability in perpetuating cheap immigrant labor, and sub-standard treatment as far as housing, wages, and treatment as fellow travelers on this planet. Before we rise up and ‘speak truth to power’… we need to start speaking the truth amongst ourselves. (And, yes, I’ve personally created a safe space for persons of ‘questionable documentation’ in my proximate space on my own dime when the situation warranted)

    1. Marlene, I agree that we are implicated and responsible for the injustice of our immigration system, of which Max is a casualty. We need to talk about that more. As for your other point, yes, the Mennonite church has been working with Max and his attorney for several years, attempting to navigate the legal channels through appeals, etc. This deportation is the tragic culmination of years of effort on the part of Max, his family, his attorney, partnering congregations, the conference, and larger church community. The recent public efforts after his detention are merely the most visible to those outside the immediate situation.

    2. Marlene, even before we credentialed Max for pastoral ministry, conference and congregational leaders worked with Max for the past six years to help him secure his legal status. Due to a couple of bad decisions Max made 15 years ago when he first came to this country and before he was a Christian, we were unable to secure any of the special immigration statuses your reference – even though he had paid his fines and fulfilled two years of probation. Our conference and congregations sought legal status for Max to the extent that we underwrote the legal costs of his case when it went before the 8th District US Court of Appeals in Max Villatoro v. Eric Holder. When this appeal was denied, we were out of options to get legal status for Max.

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