by Rev. Laura Barclay
Friday, September 2, 2011, was over a year in the making for Hector Villanueva, CBFNC pastor and legal resident who faced deportation after applying for citizenship and was arrested for a 15-year-old crime for which he had already served time—cashing a check that wasn’t his while homeless. CBFNC staff organized ministers and laity to pack the courtroom in support, and Hector gave compelling testimony about his transformation in serving God through his ministry and his commitment to his wife and children, which includes two adopted daughters. The judge, moved by his testimony and our support, said that he was convinced of Hector’s “rehabilitation” and canceled his deportation. The judge carefully reminded him that he could never be a citizen under current U.S. immigration law, though his wife and children all enjoy that privilege.
Relief and joy washed over Hector, his family, and reverberated throughout the CBFNC network. We’ve received countless messages of support for Hector over the last year and in the wake of this positive decision. However, the fact that Hector is barred from citizenship is a reminder to us that our system is flawed and there is little room for grace. States across our union are faced with these realities every day. Denominations are suing the Alabama state government for violating the practice of their faith by passing a law indicating that anyone who aids an undocumented immigrant will be arrested. Arizona requires all immigrants to carry and show their papers. Here in North Carolina, our Hispanic Network of Churches is facing a growing crisis. Police officers camp outside their churches, checking the documents of every driver entering for worship. Many of our Hispanic pastors, who are citizens or legal immigrants, have to drive vanloads of members to church because the police can only check the driver’s ID. Our current system is clearly broken, and our immigration quota system has barred many immigrants from ever obtaining citizenship. This means there is no line for those without documents to get into in order to immigrate legally.
We as Christians are called to respond to our neighbor. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus reminds us, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Whatever your opinions on what immigration reform should look like, the gospel is clear in how we should treat the stranger in our midst.
What can you do for your immigrant neighbor? You can begin by getting to know them. Consider a partnership between your church and a Hispanic congregation. Listen to their stories. Learn more about our current immigration system, by non-partisan resources and not from the mouth of a politician trying to get your vote. CBFNC, along with the United Methodist Church and other faith groups, has partnered with the Baptist Center for Ethics to produce a documentary, Gospel Without Borders that can be used in Sunday schools paired with an online discussion guide. Consider attending an upcoming screening. The North Carolina Council of Churches also has an excellent church resource called Becoming the Church Together which includes lessons and a concise time line for learning about the history of immigration.
Throughout Hector’s ordeal, I learned that immigrants have no right to an attorney and no right to benefits other than public education and emergency care. Many states have barred children brought here by their parents from obtaining a college or vocational education. Immigrants are under such hardship they can barely attend church without getting deported. We must ask ourselves what an authentic Christian response looks like in these difficult situations. I, like many of you, am a white, U.S. citizen who has never had to worry about such consequences. Instead of harboring guilt for this privilege, the proactive question remains: How will we use the privilege we were born with to change the system for those who have none? I hope that you will take advantage of one of the above resources and walk with us on the journey.