Why Congress Should Sort out Immigration: It’s our nation, too

(RNS) – When I was 18, my undocumented parents were stopped and deported because of a broken taillight. Suddenly I was alone. My parents moved to Milan near relatives. And since I couldn’t realistically look after my two younger brothers, they followed my parents to Italy.

Without legal status, I couldn’t visit her. Loneliness and depression hit me in waves, but I hoped that one day we would be reunited on American soil. That was a decade ago. I’m still waiting.

Without my family, I would rely on my faith, serve the vulnerable, and eventually become a Methodist pastor. I often thought of the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus implored his followers to love God by loving “the least of them”.

We sometimes do not recognize the undocumented because they are next to us and around us every day. Numerous undocumented immigrants stand on the front lines alongside American citizens. Approximately 280,000 undocumented immigrants work in the health sector, and nearly half of the 1.2 million immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action on Child Arrivals program are, according to the New American Economy, a non-partisan research and advocacy group, important workforce.

It is impossible to do that type of work – or, in my case, serve those who do – and not feel deeply invested in our nation. And we consider it our nation. That is why we give so much of ourselves for it.

And maybe American altruism and generosity will prevail. This month the House of Representatives is expected to pass two bipartisan bills that will take a definite compassionate approach to immigration reform.

The first is the Dreams and Promises Act, which would provide a route to citizenship for “dreamers” like me and temporary protection holders who fled natural disasters and wars in countries like my native El Salvador. The last government aggressively attempted to cancel both TPS and DACA, risking the deportation of millions of people. But the vast majority of Americans, including 68% Republicans, believe that “dreamers” deserve to live here legally and permanently.

Protesters gather outside the Capitol in Washington in support of the deferred action for child arrivals on January 21, 2018. (AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana)

Second is the law to modernize the agricultural workforce. This would provide undocumented farm workers a route to citizenship, protect them from exploitation, and ensure American farms have the legal labor supply they deserve. We don’t often think of the millions who till American soil, reap American crops, and milk American cows, but these people – at least half of whom are undocumented – form the basis of our food supplies.

If Congress sends this legislation to the president’s desk, it is likely because it will be an economic victory for America. But it’s also ethical.

My family, who fled the political instability and violence of post-war El Salvador, settled in the suburbs of Atlanta. My parents were granted temporary protection status, but when they missed a re-application deadline and were undocumented, they were unable to return in good conscience to the violence ravaging our homeland.

We had built a good life in Atlanta too. My father worked in construction; My mom was an entrepreneur and received cleaning contracts from big box stores like Home Depot and PetSmart. We were active in our local United Methodist Church and were also shaped by the legacy of the civil rights movement. I remember attending services at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on his birthday. We marched for collective justice.

Faith, love, and a desire to help others bound my family together. To this day we grapple with the grief of being torn apart.

In 2017 I met my wife, an activist who had fled political persecution in her native Venezuela. Recent policy changes give Venezuelan exiles an 18-month postponement of deportation, but that’s just not enough. Asylum seekers who escape state violence and oppression need permanent protection. their lives literally depend on it.

We now live in Wisconsin where I provide counseling and economic resources to families in need. Like so many of our American-born neighbors, my wife and I risk our health every day to serve our community.

Twice I have served people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and offered them comfort through their grief. At the daycare where she works, my wife provides security and love for the children of health professionals, engineers, and other key workers. We both believe that God’s abundant love enables us to give abundantly to others. So we soldiers carry on even though we are separated from our own families thousands of miles away.

As a pastor, I see immigration as one of the great moral calculations of our time. It is cruel to separate families, wrong to benefit from migrant workers while facing deportation, and it is incomprehensible to dismantle humanitarian programs to protect God’s most vulnerable children. I think most Americans would agree.

But agreement is not enough. We need laws. Congress needs to bring the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to the president’s desk.

I urge Americans to recognize their undocumented neighbors as human beings: husbands, wives, daughters and sons who give this country everything they have. Sit down by our stories, look at the difficulties we have escaped and see that we give much more than we take. Please stand up for our full inclusion.

I don’t know when – or if – I’ll see my parents again. This decade-long separation broke our hearts. You missed my college and seminar degrees. You missed my wedding. They couldn’t see who I became.

And yet I keep praying for us to see you again. As a person of faith, I choose to see the best in people. I choose to open my heart to them in the hope that in return they will do the same. I opened my heart to America; I pray America will do the same for me.

(Rev. Luis Velasquez works for the United Methodist Church’s Wisconsin Conference and works with Voces de la Frontera. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily correspond to those of the Religion News Service.)

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