Sacred resistance: American Baptist ministers advocate for immigration justice

Audible gasps were heard around the room during “Defending the Undocumented,” a workshop hosted in March by American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) Immigration and Refugee Ministries at First Baptist Church (FBC) of Glendale, Calif.

A man of small stature, Pastor Melvin Valiente commanded great presence in a room of 40 ABHMS partners from the Western United States, as he told the story of the fight of his life, which began in 2016. Valiente and his wife, Ada, co-pastors at FBC, Maywood, Calif.—along with the immigrant community to whom they minister—were facing an incoming presidential administration that posed a significant risk to undocumented individuals in their midst.

Noel Anderson, national grassroots coordinator for Church World Service (CWS), confirmed the risk to immigrants, telling the group of ministry leaders assembled at the workshop: “This administration has prioritized deporting as many people as they can.”

The Matthew 25 Movement
In the weeks that followed the Nov. 8 election, the Valientes helped to launch “Matthew 25 of Southern California/Mateo 25 del Sur de California,” a network of faith-based organizations and individuals who, according to the website, pledge to “stand with and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus,” as one arm of the national Matthew 25 Movement.

“Matthew 25 of Southern California/Mateo 25 del Sur de California,” according to its website, advocates for “undocumented immigrants threatened with mass deportation, as well as refugees who are being banned despite rigorous vetting; African Americans and other people of color threatened by racial policing; and Muslims, threatened with banning, monitoring, and even registration.”

Along with a larger interfaith network in the Los Angeles region, “Matthew 25 of Southern California/Mateo 25 del Sur de California” maintains safe houses that provide shelter for those who are undocumented and potentially facing deportation. Unlike houses of worship—which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are forbidden to enter because of an easily revocable 2011 Department of Homeland Security policy—private homes are protected by the Fourth Amendment, requiring a warrant for entry.

Safe houses allow immigrant families to remain together, the Rev. Zach Hoover, executive director of the multi-faith community organization LA Voice and an ordained American Baptist, said in a CNN video clip shown at the workshop.

“So they [immigrants] can avoid being detained and deported,” Hoover said. “Everybody talks about how families are the bedrock of our country. We believe that. Our congregations believe that.”

Arrests of undocumented immigrants increased 41 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to a CNN report. Under previous administrations, the report continues, ICE and other enforcement agencies prioritized detaining and deporting undocumented people with a criminal record. ICE data show a 171 percent increase in the share of non-criminals arrested in 2017, just over 11 months of which occurred under President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

“This is not a legal issue for American Baptist Churches—this is a moral issue,” the Rev. Salvador Orellana, ABHMS national coordinator of Latino Ministries, told workshop attendees, who reflected on ways in which their church communities could move from a place of empathy to a place of action. “Eleven million people are undocumented in the United States, but those are just numbers. Each of those 11 million are faces, are families, are people.

“As Christians, we need to remember that legality does not equal morality,” Orellana continued, recounting various points in U.S. history, including slavery and the need for the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements.

Hoover seconded Orellana’s sentiment, via video clip.

“The God that I worship sent a person to Earth in the name of Jesus, who did not always get along with the authorities,” Hoover said. “I answer to God at the end of the day. That’s who I’m going to see when I die.”

ABHMS’ reverends Fela Barrueto and Salvador Orellana pray for Noé and Victoria Carias.

Noé Carias’ story
In July 2017, an Echo Park, Calif., pastor, Noé Carias, a 42-year old undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who has been in the United States since he was approximately 14, was detained while reporting for his ICE check-in. He had hoped for a continued stay of removal, last extended in 2016.

Carias told workshop attendees that he was horribly mistreated during his time at the largest detention facility in California—the privately-run Adelanto Detention Center, where multiple detainees have reportedly died. Despite contracting bronchitis twice, he said that he was never treated. Facility employees regularly used demeaning, racist and dehumanizing language toward detainees, Carias said.

“The only thing he’s done wrong is come here,” said Carias’ wife, Victoria, a U.S. native. “We’ve tried to fix it for a long time, but there hasn’t been any kind of reform.”

The only legal route offered to Noé Carias required him to leave the United States under a 10-year ban, said Matthew 25 of Southern California/Mateo 25 del Sur de California’s Ada Valiente. At the end of 10 years, he could petition the U.S. government for legal residency and citizenship—far from a guaranteed return.

“I need my husband,” Victoria Carias said, explaining how it would have been unfeasible for the couple’s two young children to be without their father for a decade. “This is a portrait of us, but so many other families are dealing with this.”

Upon learning of the detention and likely deportation facing Noé Carias—a local, law-abiding pastor—“Matthew 25 of Southern California/Mateo 25 del Sur de California” sprung into action, providing legal support, political advocacy with local and federal representatives, prayer vigils, and direct support for the Carias family. Meanwhile, the organization’s Melvin Valiente was in the depths of intensive cancer treatment.

Fifty-nine days after he was detained, Noé Carias was released.

Since the 2016 election, CWS has seen an increase in churches participating in the sanctuary movement, said Anderson, from approximately 400 churches prior to Trump’s election to nearly 1,100 today. Church involvement ranges from providing physical sanctuary to providing accompaniment to ICE check-ins, court appearances and legal clinics.

When the faith community surrounds an undocumented person with a network of support and demonstrates the individual’s value to the community, ICE tends to act with more mercy than is usually provided otherwise, according to Melvin Valiente.

“Sometimes we’re able to get people a renewed stay [of deportation] when we have a really strong community presence at these ICE check-ins,” Anderson said.

On March 29, when many Christians recognized Maundy Thursday, Noé Carias reported to the ICE facility in downtown Los Angeles for his check-in, the same process that lead to his detention in 2017. Shortly after he entered the facility with members and allies of “Matthew 25 of Southern California/Mateo 25 del Sur de California,” Noé Carias was released with another stay of deportation. He was able to return home, for the time being, to be with his family and to continue pastoring in his community.

As of his most recent check-up, Melvin Valiente reported, “the cancer appears to be gone.”

Additional information about ABHMS’ Immigration and Refugee Ministries is available online. For information about supporting immigrants in your community, visit the websites of The Matthew 25 Movement and CWS.


Online resource available to faith community

Available online is “Immigration Raids Rapid Response: For Faith Allies,” a Church World Service resource inspired by the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.

The resource encourages the faith community to stand with immigrants and refugees, as detentions and deportations increase.

“We know from [President Donald J.] Trump’s executive orders and announcements that immigration enforcement will increase deportations, including through small- and large-scale raids,” the resource reads. “This may take place through workplace raids, home raids, neighborhood-wide raids and checkpoints. As faith allies, we are called to be in solidarity through rapid-response mobilization to stop these raids, stop these deportations and support impacted communities. In the face of President Trump’s extremist anti-immigrant agenda, we must respond with a prophetic and bold voice.”