5. The Memphis Immigration Project: A Testimony

PJR Vol. 8 2018, Families, Nations and Immigration: Who Comes First?

Rondell Treviño is the Founder of the Memphis immigration Project—a faith-based organization that exists to engage issues of immigration from a biblical perspective.

My Story

In September of 2013, I reconnected with my now wife, Laura, while she was in El Salvador—after she had spent a year studying at the Bible Program in Memphis, Tennessee in 2011-2012.

Laura and I fell in love with one another, were engaged by December 2014, and married by February 14, 2015 in El Salvador. After being married for one week, I had to go back to the United States to work and figure out what to do in order to get Laura to the United States. During my extensive research on how to bring my wife home, God used this time to help me understand how broken the immigration system can be, the injustices perpetuated, and how few Evangelical Christians choose to view Immigration from a biblical perspective.,

Eventually I found the right petition (I-130 Visa). However, law firms in El Salvador said we didn’t need to fill out the petition, and could instead get married right away, fly over the United States, and everything would work out. Sadly, we believed this advice, and planned to fly her to the United States six months later (August 2015) only to find out that she could not come the way we were advised. In other words, we wasted six months.

When Laura and I finally filled out the I-130 petition, we had to wait an entire year for the petition to be approved in order to be reunited. During that year I fell into depression and sleeplessness. I gained weight, constantly felt anxious, and was left dry, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  

During the first six months of our marriage (the six months we wasted not filing the I-130 petition), I still felt called to work full-time in immigration advocacy. I began working as a Southeast Mobilizer for the Evangelical Immigration Table and a program of the National Immigration Forum called Bibles, Badges, and Business for the entire 2016 year where I equipped, consulted, and helped build bridges between faith communities, law enforcement, and business leaders in Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia. I never realized how personal this work would become to me.

When my wife’s I-130 petition was finally approved in September 2016, I decided to take a job in Memphis at a church, but I still wanted me to be an immigration advocate so I sought to understand the needs of Memphis and even the country asking, “Is there a need for a faith-based Immigration organization? And if so, what would it look like?” Through the guidance of mentors and much prayer, I officially launched Memphis Immigration Project in February of 2017, as a faith-based organization that exists to engage issues of immigration from a biblical perspective in order to help the church–a people on mission - to be better equipped and challenged to view, think, dialogue, and act biblically about immigration issues. At the forefront of this is an effort to put families first.

Our Story

Christians understand that family unity is a bedrock belief, a first order community, recognized not only in Scripture but also by the United States of America. Family is one of the most important things in life. The Bible makes this clear in the creation account, where God makes a woman and a man, unites them as "one flesh" and blesses them with the exhortation to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:27, 28; 2:23, 24). It revisits the theme in Deuteronomy 11:19 and Proverbs 22:6, where the Lord instructs His people to train up their children in the way of holiness and truth. It underscores the message in the Psalmist's declaration that "children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward" (Psalm 127:3). It emphasizes it in the apostle's warning that "if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8). For all these reasons and more, Christians do not hesitate to affirm that there is a strong biblical basis for family unity. This is why my wife and I did whatever it took to get her to the United States.

However, despite family unity being a key theme in the fabric of God’s inerrant and infallible Word, policies and actions taken by government organizations like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have at times not reflected this. In early 2017, the Trump Administration issued a series of edicts to ICE agents, prosecutors and immigration judges stating that any and all of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally were now a priority for deportation. Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, told reporters in December 2017, “There’s no population that’s off the table…If you’re in the country illegally, we’re looking for you.” I understand the government’s role in promoting the welfare of these United States, and I understand the need to step in when there are horrific crimes such as sex trafficking  and drug trafficking, but making every immigrant a target, especially the majority who are good neighbors living in the U.S. for more than ten years, serving in churches, and providing for their families is unethical and wrong.

For example, there was a Pastor by the name of Noe Nolberto Carias Mayorga of the Iglesia Pentecostal Cristo la Roca de Poder Asambleas de Dios who was separated from his wife and two US citizen kids and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles on July 24, 2017 because he entered the US as a teenager without permission 25 years ago. Legal documentation is important, and America is a nation of laws, but   is there no mercy and compassion for a man who loves Jesus, pastors a church, has a family, and has lived peacefully in the US for 25 years? If family unity is the bedrock of our society, especially for us as Christians, then public policy that promotes breaking up families like this is unethical and wrong. And Christians must not stand for it.

Consider that there are currently more than 690,000 plus Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Recipients, and since September 5, 2017 when President Trump rescinded the program, 20,000 plus Dreamers have lost their status based on crimes they didn’t commit. In other words, DACA recipients came to the US as young children without any choice in the matter because their parents made the choice to bring them. They were children who couldn’t make their own choice, coming with either their father, mother, or both. Christians and legislators have understood this plight for DACA recipients and introduced bipartisan solutions that have included new border security, protection for the 690,000 Dreamers, and the end of family reunification (also known as “Chain Migration”), which is a pillar of Trump’s Immigration four-point plan. Sadly, a spending bill was just passed excluding a bipartisan solution for DACA Recipients, which make them vulnerable to deportation. Now thousands will continue to lose their status each month.

When it comes to “chain migration”, which should be called Family Reunification, it has been fueled by misinformation, like the false notion that an immigrant could sponsor uncles or cousins to come to the United States. This is not to mention that studies suggest, on average, immigrants only sponsor 1.77 family members. In other words, not every immigrant is trying to sponsor their parents, grandparents, uncle, and third cousin. Many of those who oppose family reunification also miss that family immigration is restrained by economic forces, personal preference, and visa wait times that can approach 15 or even 20 plus years. For example, there are family sponsored F1 visa cases (means adult (21+) unmarried children of US citizens) still processing from China since June, 2010. This means they have been waiting for eight years. There are family sponsored F1 visa cases still processing from Mexico since May 15, 1995. This means they have been waiting for twenty-eight years. There are family sponsored F3 visa cases (married children of US citizens) still processing from the Philippines since September 8, 1994. This is a wait of nineteen years. These wait times are a reality for many cases just to be reunified with family.

There are also undocumented children who came to the United State without any legal status, some DACA recipients and others who aren’t, and at age eighteen find themselves barred from legal employment, military service, and access to higher education. In some states like mine (Tennessee), there are undocumented children who come to the United States without legal status—and at age eighteen, they must pay out of state tuition in order to pursue higher education even though they have lived in Tennessee their entire lives. In this vulnerable state, many have to choose whether to stay in the U.S. or leave family for a home country they hardly know.

These issues are what immigrant families are facing every single day in the United States, and have sadly become a normal way of life. No one should fear being separated from family. These realities make mine and my wife’s story of separation while waiting for our I-130 Visa an easy process compared to what many immigrant families face. And I can’t help but think how devastated other immigrant families are to be separated, as I was, for only just a year.

The Memphis Immigration Project

When I launched the Memphis Immigration Project in February of 2017, one of the key components was an effort to put families first. There are four ways we seek to achieve our mission:

  1. Equip small-groups, churches, organizations, and leadership teams on issues of immigration in order for communities to be better challenged to view, think, dialogue, and act biblically about immigration.
  2. Consult individuals, churches, organizations, and leadership teams on how to engage and navigate through issues of immigration from a biblical perspective.
  3. Advocate for immigrants affected by injustice, with immigrants affected by injustice, and by immigrants affected by injustice in order to hold people and institutions accountable for creating, implementing, and sustaining just and good policies and practices. Such polices must be geared toward the flourishing of society by keeping families together through formulating petitions, writing op-eds, engaging on social media, and meeting with Congress persons and Senators. We have been advocating for a bipartisan solution on DACA for a couple of years now, for tuition equality in Tennessee, and comprehensive Immigration Reform. We have met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), asking them to not target undocumented immigrants who are good neighbors, provide for their families, active in churches, and give back to the economy. All of this is an ongoing fight because we don’t want immigrants separated from families.
  4. Dreamer Scholarship is a partnership between our organization and a local Bible College providing full-ride college scholarships for immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in order to improve life skills, increase future outcomes in society, and deepen relationships with Christ. We launched this project in January 2018, currently have eight DACA recipients enrolled, and plan on adding more next semester.

Each one of our projects has and continues to help achieve our mission. Family unity is of the utmost importance because it is something that is of utmost importance to God and his design for human life. We are seeking to play a small part and do our best to make family unity important because immigrants families are people to love, not problems to solve.

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