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Why Congress needs to act on immigration: It’s our nation too

I’ve opened my heart to America; I pray America will do the same for me.

FILE - In this June 18, 2020, file photo, people hold signs during a vehicle caravan rally to support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA), around MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Immigrant rights activists energized by a new Democratic administration and majorities on Capitol Hill are gearing up for a fresh political battle. A coalition of national advocacy groups on Monday announced a multimillion-dollar campaign to help push through President Joe Biden’s plan to open a citizenship pathway for up to 11 million people. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

(RNS) — When I was 18, my undocumented parents were pulled over for a broken taillight and deported. Suddenly, I found myself alone. My parents resettled near relatives in Milan. And since I couldn’t realistically care for my two younger brothers, they followed my parents to Italy.

Without legal status myself, I couldn’t visit them. Loneliness and depression hit me in waves, but I held out hope that one day we’d be reunited on American soil. That was a decade ago. I’m still waiting.

Without my family, I leaned on my faith, served the vulnerable and eventually became a Methodist pastor. I thought often of the Gospel of Matthew’s 25th chapter, where Jesus implores his followers to love God by loving “the least of these.”

We sometimes don’t recognize the undocumented because they are beside us and around us every day. Scores of undocumented immigrants stand alongside American citizens on the front lines. Some 280,000 undocumented immigrants work in health care and nearly half of 1.2 million immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are essential workers, according to New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization.

It’s impossible to do this kind of work — or in my case, minister to those who do — and not feel deeply invested in our nation. And we do consider it our nation. It’s why we give so much of ourselves to it. 

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

First is the Dream and Promise Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” like me as well as Temporary Protected Status holders, who fled natural disaster and war in countries such as my native El Salvador. The last administration aggressively tried to cancel both TPS and DACA, putting millions at risk of deportation. But the vast majority of Americans, including 68% of Republicans, believe “Dreamers” deserve to live here lawfully —and permanently.

Demonstrators rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals outside the Capitol, Jan. 21, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Demonstrators rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals outside the Capitol, Jan. 21, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Second is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. This would give undocumented farmworkers a pathway to citizenship, protecting them from exploitation and ensuring that American farms have the legal labor supply they deserve. We don’t often think about the millions who till American soil, harvest American crops and milk American cows, but these individuals — at least half of whom are undocumented — are the foundation of our food supply. 

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

My family, fleeing political instability and violence of post-civil war El Salvador, settled in suburban Atlanta. My parents had Temporary Protected Status, but when they missed a reapplication deadline and became undocumented, they couldn’t in good conscience return to the violence ravaging our native land.

We’d also built a good life in Atlanta. My dad worked in construction; my mom was an entrepreneur, landing contracts to clean big-box stores like Home Depot and PetSmart. Active in our local United Methodist Church, we were also steeped in the legacy of the civil rights movement — I remember attending services at the 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 still wrestle with the sorrow of being torn apart. 

In 2017, I met my wife, an activist who’d fled political persecution in her native Venezuela. Recent policy changes grant Venezuelan exiles deferred action from deportation for 18 months, but that’s simply not sufficient. Asylum-seekers escaping state violence and oppression need permanent protections; their lives literally depend on it.

We now live in Wisconsin, where I bring pastoral care and economic resources to families in need. Like so many of our American-born neighbors, my wife and I risk our health daily to serve our community.

Twice, I’ve ministered to people who lost their loved ones to COVID-19, offering them comfort through their grief. At the day care where she works, my wife provides safety and love to the kids of health care professionals, engineers and other vital workers. We both believe that God’s abundant love enables us to give abundantly to others. It’s how we soldier on, despite being separated from our own families, thousands of miles away.  

As a pastor, I see immigration as one of the great moral reckonings of our time. It’s cruel to separate families, wrong to profit from immigrant labor while letting the threat of deportation loom and unconscionable to dismantle the humanitarian programs that protect God’s most vulnerable children. I believe most Americans would agree.

But agreement isn’t enough. We need legislation. Congress must get 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: as husbands, wives, daughters and sons, who give everything they have to this country. Sit with our stories, consider the hardships we’ve escaped and see that we give much more than we take. Please, advocate for our full inclusion.

I don’t know when — or if — I’ll see my parents again. This decadelong separation has broken our hearts. They missed my graduations from college and seminary. They missed my wedding. They’ve been unable to see the person I’ve become.

And still, I continue to pray for our reunion. As a person of faith, I choose to see the best in people. I choose to open my heart to them in hopes they will do the same in return. I’ve opened my heart to America; I pray America will do the same for me.

(The Rev. Luis Velasquez works for the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church and is a collaborator with Voces de la Frontera. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)