WASHINGTON, D.C. — Max Villatoro, the pastor of a small Mennonite church in Iowa, may seem like an unlikely target for immigration agents who say they’re focused on tracking down criminals. But his family just celebrated the grim first anniversary of his deportation back to Honduras.
“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.
Max was considered a “high priority” for deportation because of his decades-old criminal convictions — one for drunk driving in 1998, and one for record tampering in 1999. When he was deported back to Honduras last year, he became a flashpoint in the immigration debate. Critics slammed the Obama administration’s decision to target a man who changed his life around, became an upstanding Iowa resident and religious leader, and put down roots in the country with four U.S.-citizen children.
“We believe in the transformation of individuals,” David Boshart, executive conference minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, told ThinkProgress. “Max came illegally — he had several infractions when he was younger, but he paid his dues.”
Since November 2014, when President Obama announced his now-infamous “felons, not families” promise, the administration has assured the immigrant community that enforcement efforts will be focused on border priorities — like immigrants who have committed serious crimes or immigrants who have recently crossed the border.
But as immigration operations have unfolded across the country, the profiles of some of these arrested individuals don’t seem to align with those goals.
That’s why Gloria and other advocates came to Washington, D.C. this week to meet with U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials and congressional members. They’re hoping to highlight the impact that these immigration policies have had among immigrants with U.S.-based families, particularly among religious communities. And they want to emphasize that their loved ones are not national security threats.
The ICE agency has long established guidelines for field officers to exercise discretion when detaining and arresting immigrants at sensitive locations like churches, hospitals, and schools. The reasoning is that these enforcement actions could cause "significant disruption to the normal operations of the sensitive location," as a 2011 policy memorandum explained.
But federal immigration agents may have begun a disturbing trend that violates those guidelines as they target suspected undocumented immigrants and immigrants with decades-old criminal convictions at churches and even off-school property.
Pastor Gerson Morena Mujica, an associate pastor at the Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg, Illinois, joined 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."
Advocates for both Garcia and Villatoro also criticized the Obama administration for going against its policy memos advising ICE agents to exercise prosecutorial discretion as early as possible during an immigrant's detention, particularly paying special attention to parents of U.S.-citizen children or those with other long-standing ties to the country.
"The mitigating factors are obvious," David Leopold, Villatoro's lawyer, told ThinkProgress. "Max was 25 in 1998 when he got his DUI. When he was deported, he was 42. Many of us can say we're a little different at the age of 42 than we are at the age of 25. That's what wasn't taken into account."
Some faith advocates also called for Villatoro's return through a private congressional bill. Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) has introduced the "For the relief of Max Villatoro" bill, which would allow him to be issued an immigrant visa to adjust his status and allow him to come back to the country legally.
Religious leaders also pointed out that deportations go against their fundamental beliefs.
"I don't think you can find a way to justify scripture that's not pervasive to always create a provision for the alien among you," Boshart added. "How do you justify turning a person in need away?"