Faith leaders and advocates have condemned the aggressive — and oftentimes deceptive — tactics used by ICE to target and deport undocumented immigrants.
The advocates spoke out during a visit with lawmakers in Washington, DC last week on the one year anniversary of the deportation of Pastor Max Villatoro, an Iowa faith leader who was arrested and torn from his family for decades-old convictions.
The news of his arrest raised fury among immigration advocates, who argued that Pastor Max, a resident of his Iowa community for 20 years, was exactly the kind of person who should have been spared from deportation under the Obama Administration’s guidelines.
A year later, Pastor Max’s family and advocates have not only continued to fight for his return from Honduras, but are speaking out against the tactics used by ICE to target other immigrants like Pastor Max.
Pastor Gerson Morena Mujica, an associate pastor at the Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg, Illinois, joined [Pastor Max’s wife] Gloria in the nation’s capital to condemn federal immigration agents for luring Reynold Garcia, an undocumented Mexican parishioner, out of his church in early January.
ICE agents had already deported Garcia’s wife the day before they used deceptive tactics to lure him out of church services. On the day Garcia was deported, agents allegedly used his cousin’s cell phone to send urgent text messages about a car crash. When Garcia called the number, an agent said that his cousin had been in a car crash, and offered to drive to the church to pick him up. Morena Mujica recalled to ThinkProgress that once Garcia left the church, immigration agents detained him across the street.
Garcia has since been deported to Mexico, where he now lives with his wife. Their children also moved to Mexico to be with them.
But the way in which ICE agents took Garcia has had a ripple effect on his congregation.
“This has brought a lot of fear within the church members — they’re worried,” Morena Mujica said. His parishioners have begun calling the pastoral team to ask if ICE agents are nearby or, in one extreme anecdote, to ask whether the church was helping to round up immigrants on behalf of the ICE agency.
“The church is supposed to be a safe haven,” Morena Mujica told ThinkProgress. “It’s the last place that you would think you would be followed, taken from. It’s supposed to be that little piece of heaven here on earth. And that was disrupted.”
“Part of the reason that all of this is so shocking is the extent to which [ICE agents] went,” Lissette Castillo, an immigration organizer with the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America, told ThinkProgress. “This was for someone who clearly posed no threat whatsoever to the community — but quite the opposite — with someone who was well-respected and beloved within the community.”
“We believe in the transformation of individuals,” said David Boshart, executive conference minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference. “Max came illegally — he had several infractions when he was younger, but he paid his dues.”
As we’ve previously noted, there’s some hope for Pastor Max’s case. Advocates scored a significant victory recently when a member of Congress introduced legislation to bring him home. However, Pastor Max’s family continues to struggle in his absence, particularly his American citizen children:
“It has been devastating for our family and kids,” Gloria Villatoro told ThinkProgress, her voice cracking under the strain of recounting her husband’s deportation from the United States last March. “My kids don’t have their father anymore. My girls… have to see a therapist every week.”
Since Max’s deportation, his family has had to adjust to talking to him on the phone. “The little one will say, ‘mom I don’t want to see dad, I want to touch him,’ and I say I’m sorry,” Gloria said.