Methodist Sunday school teacher detained in immigration raids

His son is reportedly a citizen, and his wife is a legal resident.

CREDIT: AP/LMĀ Otero
CREDIT: AP/LMĀ Otero

A Methodist Sunday school teacher in Kansas has reportedly been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is now believed to be set for deportation, sparking concern among local faith leaders unsettled by the surge of immigration raids under President Donald Trump.

According to an account published by the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) communications office, Humberto Barralaga reportedly heard a knock at his door on Tuesday morning, February 7. He allowed two immigration officials — who were allegedly not wearing anything that identified themselves as ICE agents — into his home to give them refuge from the cold.

Advertisement

But according to his pastor, as soon as Barralaga opened the door, the men reportedly called other officers into the house and detained him.

Officials for the Great Plains Conference—the regional UMC governing body—told ThinkProgress that Barralaga is an active member of the House of Prayer Hispanic ministry of United Methodist Church in Dodge City, Kansas, where he is also a Sunday school teacher and the men’s evangelism leader. GPC officials said he had been waiting for his son, a U.S. citizen, to turn 21 so Barralaga could petition to adjust his immigration status. His wife, they said, is also a legal resident.

They added they were not aware of where Barralaga is being detained or what, if anything, he is being charged with.

“We cannot find anything that can lead us to indicate that he has had any criminal activity,” said Todd Seifert, the communications director for the conference. Seifert said that Barralaga’s role as a Sunday school teacher was a “well-connected” ministry position for the tiny church, where he oversaw men’s ministry.

“On multiple occasions, ICE has refused to speak to us despite having an ICE privacy waiver from the person in detention; or ICE has just remained unresponsive to us.”

When ThinkProgress reached out ICE for confirmation, however, officials were initially slow to reply, and calls to local ICE detention centers were hastily redirected to answering machines without a response. It was only after several hours that ICE finally stated they were holding a man by the name of Pablo Barralaga-Escobar, 51, who was arrested in Dodge City. They added that Barralaga-Escobar has “since been placed into removal proceedings due to his three DUI convictions and a which separate misdemeanor conviction”—in other words, scheduled for deportation. A mugshot of a man named “Pablo Barralaga-Escoba” resembling the UMC’s image of Humberto is dated the same day as Humberto’s arrest.

Advertisement

It’s possible that ICE was unable to find Barralaga in their locator system because of a name discrepancy. But immigrant advocates say opaque or even deceptive tactics by ICE are routine, and there are concerns it will only get worse under Trump.

“On multiple occasions, ICE has refused to speak to us despite having an ICE privacy waiver from the person in detention or ICE has just remained unresponsive to us,” said Christina M. Fialho, Executive Director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement. “Now with the change in the Administration, we are concerned this will happen with more frequency, as more of our community members are disappeared into the detention and deportation system.”

The shift is being felt in other ways as well. Even if Barralaga has as criminal record, for instance, he may not have been detained under Barack Obama’s administration — which issued directives asking ICE agents to exercise leniency towards immigrants with U.S. citizen children.

According to pastor Juan Carlos, a UMC minister in the conference who is helping spearhead efforts to aid immigrants in the region, the bond for Barralaga’s release is set at $7,000.

Carlos noted that developing coalitions to help handle such situations is rapidly becoming a primary concern for churchgoers in the area, which has historically been a haven for immigrant and refugee communities. Developing structures to respond to cases like Barralaga’s is now “one of the priorities in our conference,” he said.

Advertisement

Although Barralaga has longstanding ties to the United States and deep connections in his community, deportations of people like him may become increasingly common under the Trump administration. ICE officials said he is one of more than 680 immigrants swept up in immigration raids this past week, with direct assistance from local police in places such as Dodge City. According to the Kansas City Star, Barralaga was one of 32 people arrested in Wichita, Dodge City, Garden City, and surrounding area alone.

Jeania Ree V. Moore, Director of Civil and Human Rights at the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, noted that aggressive deportation policies were also used during the Obama administration. She said that UMC leaders affirmed and updated the denomination’s progressive resolution on immigration in 2016 in response, and that the UMC’s pro-immigrant stance is rooted in their Christian faith.

“Jesus’ own life begins as a refugee to Africa as a part of state-sponsored killing.”

“Jesus’ own life begins as a refugee to Africa as a part of state-sponsored killing,” she said. “We recognize that the situation is casted as political… but we also know that it’s also moral and ethical, and, for us, deeply a matter of faith.”

Churches and other faith groups are rapidly becoming an increasingly vocal opponent of deportations and restrictive immigration polices. The UMC is also one of several Christian, Jewish, and Muslim institutions that have lent their support for the “New Sanctuary Movement.” Participating churches, synagogues, and mosques offer up their sanctuaries to immigrants at risk of deportation, making use of an internal ICE policy that dissuades agents from raiding churches, schools, or hospitals. However, DHS has not issued clear guidance on whether these memos have continued since Trump took office.

“The UMC has stood behind sanctuary as an option and a recourse, and continues to do so explicitly,” Moore said.

The strategy successfully pressured ICE to drop or delay the deportation orders for several immigrants during Barack Obama’s administration, but it remains unclear whether the policy will remain in place under Trump.

Advertisement

Nevertheless, Trump’s election — fueled in part by a spate of anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence — has inspired a bevy of new worship communities to sign on as potential sanctuaries for immigrants.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the church where Barralaga is a member. It has been corrected.