Ordered out of America, an immigrant father turns to the church
Wednesday morning (Nov. 15), on the steps of First Grace United Methodist Church, Jose Torres, a 32-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador and the father of two small girls, took sanctuary inside the church and, thus, defied an order from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to turn himself in that day for deportation. With clergy from various faith traditions behind him and a diverse and supportive crowd in front of him, Torres dabbed the corner of his eyes with a tissue as he spoke of his daughters' chronic medical conditions and ICE's indifference to their predicament and to his.
"Immigration knows that I have two daughters," Torres said in Spanish. "My oldest daughter is 8 years old. My youngest is 2 years old ... Immigration knows that both of my daughters have chronic conditions and that my youngest daughter, she was born premature and that she suffers from seizures and has since birth ... They have the paperwork. They've seen the prescriptions that my daughter takes. But they don't care."
Shawn Anglim, the pastor of the church that is sheltering Torres, followed Torres at the microphone by giving what amounted to a sermon. He stressed the similarities between himself and Torres. He stressed the similarities between Torres and parents all over New Orleans and the United States. And over and over again Anglim used the word "neighbor."
In Luke, a legal expert tells Jesus he understands he's required to love his neighbor as himself, but he claims to be confused: "Who is my neighbor?" The answer is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The person in that group that you've been taught to revile? That's your neighbor.
Anglim said he'd spent Tuesday evening talking to his daughter about her math class but, "Other neighbors are having other conversations." They are preparing their children for the possibility of their sudden disappearance. "There is a silent terror and a brutality that some of our neighbors face daily that many of us do not face, do not feel, do not realize," the pastor said. "Good, decent, hardworking mothers and fathers like you and like me, your neighbors ... and your children's friends' parents, drop their children off to school and never come back to pick them up. Gone. Just gone. Detained and deported. How can this be good for a child? How can this be good for parents? How can this be good for a school?"
Anglim didn't insult the law-and-order types who invariably take a hard line against mercy for the undocumented, but he did express his disappointment that "Good, decent enforcers of the law have come to think that destabilizing the lives of children is good for a community."
To hear Torres tell it, he came to the attention of immigration officials when he got a single DUI, a crime that's way too common in Louisiana but not one that has officially made an undocumented person a deportation priority. I say "officially" because critics of President Barack Obama's deportation policies scoff at his November 2014 promise to deport "Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids." The Marshall Project reviewed 300,000 deportations after Obama's speech and found that roughly 60 percent "were of immigrants with no criminal conviction or whose only crime was immigration-related, such as illegal entry or re-entry. Twenty-one percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes other than immigration. Fewer than 20 percent had potentially violent convictions, such as assault, DUI or weapons offenses."
The difference between Obama's administration and Donald Trump's is that Trump isn't pretending that a person like Torres has to commit a felony to be targeted for removal. In April, when John Kelly was still the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd asked him for "an example of somebody that wasn't deported before that you're deporting now." Kelly said, "Well, someone, as an example, with multiple DUIs. Even a single DUI, depending on other aspects, would get you into the system." An ICE memo leaked in February gives officers permission to take "enforcement action against all removable aliens encountered in the course of their duties."
Thomas Byrd, the spokesperson for the New Orleans ICE field office, said in a written statement that people like Torres who "have been ordered removed by an immigration court, have no pending appeal, and do not qualify for relief must be removed."
"I've tried to demonstrate to them that I'm a human being," Torres said when he stood at the microphone. "I've lived here in New Orleans for 14 years working shoulder to shoulder with other people here who love this city, helping to rebuild it after the storm."
"Hate has become so strong," he said. "It's blinded people, it's shut their eyes, and people are forgetting that before the eyes of God we're all the same. It doesn't matter what race, nationality, religion, language, we're all the same."