“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime,” presidential candidate Donald Trump emphatically stated in June 2015; a refrain which played over the living room speakers in homes across America.
This claim referred to Mexican immigrants and supported Trump’s argument to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to keep immigrants off U.S. soil. Thousands of lives on this soil were changed when, despite the error in Trump’s reasoning, Americans ultimately elected him as president in November 2016.
Trump’s reasoning indeed struck a chord with voters. According to a study conducted in 2016 by the Pew Research Center, 33 percent of Americans still believed that immigrants were a “burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”
Americans who are pro-wall not only misunderstand who is migrating to their nation, but also why they are migrating.
Maria Padilla (who asked for her family members’ real names to be concealed) was one of the lives changed by Trump’s election. She was born in Guanajuato, Mexico in the 1970s. In her adulthood, she often visited the U.S. on a visa for temporary business purposes. But in 2008, a reason to stay emerged.
While visiting family members in Little Village, a neighborhood in Chicago’s Near West Side dubbed the “Mexico of the Midwest” because 88 percent of its residents are Mexican, Padilla discovered a church right behind their house called New Life Community Church, or Nueva Vida. She had been praying for a new church home.
Though Padilla had no intentions on staying in the U.S., Nueva Vida compelled her to stay with her relatives and serve at the church, where her faith in Jesus began to blossom. Padilla soon met her future husband Omar through a Christian dating website. They have been married for seven years and have six children together — three from his previous marriage, two from hers and one together.
Omar, a third-generation immigrant, came to the U.S. from Mexico City in 1988 to work and, in January 2017, became an American citizen. But due to immigration changes, helping his wife become a citizen has been difficult.
Since last year, the couple has spent $25,000 dollars on lawyers, Maria’s application process, and Omar’s travel to the border for his two sons’ immigration appointments, so they could re-enter the U.S. legally with passports and a visa. Since then, the boys have become legal residents, but immigration lawyers advised Omar to not petition for Maria to stay in the U.S. until he became a citizen in January 2017.
Omar submitted the paperwork for family reunification back in May, which began the process for legal residency for Maria. She currently resides in the U.S. under a work visa which requires yearly renewal but permits her to have a social security number, work and remain as she waits for a green card to become a legal resident — a process which remains ongoing.
The thought of being separated from her family due to her pending legal status and the growing anti-immigrant sentiment brings Maria fear.
“It’s so hard for us as immigrants to tell these stories,” she said, according to Omar who translated Maria’s Spanish into English. “We are hesitant to talk about it because Trump has been very aggressive toward us to try to make us feel bad. As Christians, we know this is warfare from the enemy. It’s a spiritual battle. Christ said to love your enemies, so I pray for Trump that God would break his heart that’s filled with hatred. From our point of view, we never thought we were going to be in the middle of this situation. I pray God gives us more faith, but this tense time can strengthen our relationship with God. God is testing us, but no matter what decisions are made in this legal process, the enemy won’t steal our joy from us.”
If Maria’s residency process fails due to increasingly stringent immigration laws, Omar and five of their children will be left without her. The parents agreed that their youngest son would stay with Maria if forced to return to Mexico.
“The administration will separate my young five-year-old son from his father,” Padilla said, weeping.
Listening to Those Who Weep
Separation from family is just one of the many circumstances in which Mexican immigrants find themselves. Dire situations are also at hand if some don’t cross the border. According to Sylvia Amador, a ministry leader at Nueva Vida, poverty and violence prompt many immigrants to flee to the U.S. without proper documentation. Drugs, political corruption, unemployment and lack of educational opportunities are also reasons why many leave Mexico for America.
“This one lady I know crossed the border illegally, crawling on her hands and knees for hours and hours and she was in her late 50’s without legal status,” Amador said. “She was back home with her husband, and they knew in the U.S. they could have food on the table everyday. Another family in our church was on their way back to Mexico … and when they returned, they found out from close relatives most of their family members had been kidnapped.”
Amador explained that kidnapping is prevalent in some areas of Mexico and often targets wealthier people. Relatives of Amador’s husband have also been kidnapped and held for ransom. She has heard numerous stories of church members who, once they attained enough money to sustain themselves, returned to their hometowns in Mexico to find that drug cartel controlled their neighborhood and had kidnapped family members.
Amador was born in Spain and moved to the U.S. to attend Moody Bible Institute. There she met her future husband Paco, who is Mexican. Five years later, they married and moved to Little Village to plant a church. Nueva Vida was born, where her husband has led his congregation since 2005.
Amador noticed a shift among her fellow church members when President Trump took office, even in the youth Sunday school class she teaches.
“I remember the day after the election, we were just doing the normal prayer requests,” Amador said. “I asked this little girl to draw her prayer request. This little girl drew a blonde person and then another face that was full of fear, and she said she was afraid that she would never see her mom again who had tried to cross the border several times unsuccessfully.
“There was a very palpable emotion of fear [at Nueva Vida], and some ways in which the fears actually did play out were that some of our friends who are undocumented business owners … their business starting to go down. People were trying to save up in case they had to go back to their misery in Mexico.”
Amador encourages Christians to consider the reasons why immigrants are in America. For the overwhelming majority, it’s not to break the law, but instead to put food on the table, try to survive and put their families in better situations.
This context should matter to Christians says Sara Aardema, Director of Volunteer and Church Engagement for World Relief Chicago, a Christian non-profit which resettles refugees.
“Christians are called to follow laws and submit to authority, but when policies created by people work against God’s promise of restoring Shalom, a state when all of creation experiences wholeness and flourishing in God, Christians should speak into these policies,” Aardema said. “Passages throughout the Bible reveal that God calls us to extend compassion to immigrants and refugees. The Israelites are told that “the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born” (Leviticus 19:34), and the New Testament reminds us that we are called to “show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). As followers of Christ, we are called to support policies that reflect God’s promise to restore everything and everyone in his Kingdom to wholeness in Christ.”
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Resting in Sovereignty
As leaders at Nueva Vida, the Amadors advocate and strive to create platforms to speak about immigration. She encourages members facing deportation to not panic but, as children of God, trust in Jesus.
“The reality is that if we are sent back, God is sovereign,” Amador said. “God will move us just like when the disciples were persecuted. The gospel spreads further … It’s God who will have the last word.”
In September, Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), leaving the future of thousands of undocumented immigrants uncertain. DACA had protected nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who migrated to America as minors from deportation since President Barack Obama established the policy in June 2012. The story of many DACA recipients is that they did not even decide to come to America undocumented, but rather were brought by their parents. Congress has until March 5, 2018 to revise the DACA legislation.
One of those DACA recipients is Aldo Medina, a 26-year-old who attends Nueva Vida. He was born in Mexico City and brought to the U.S. at nine months old. His family came to work and build a life in Little Village.
Through the DACA program, Medina was able to get an associate’s degree from Morton College in computer science, and he currently works as an IT technician at Lawndale Christian Health Center. He met his wife Alejandra, 26, at Nueva Vida where he plays guitar and leads worship. As his hunger for God’s Word grew, so did his affections for Alejandra. They began dating and have been married for two years.
As a couple, they’ve talked through every scenario if Medina is sent back, which, for him, returning to Mexico City is returning to place he has never known.
“I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know what it smells like or what the air feels like over there. All I know is Chicago. This is all I’ve known for my whole life,” Medina said. “For Trump to [imply] that we need to go back to where we’re from, well, I’m from Chicago. I’m scared of the difference in life over there versus here. My parents lived in Mexico but wanted us to be born here, but now [we may be] forced to go to Mexico.”
It scares Alejandra to think that she would be forced to go to Mexico, as a result of her husband’s DACA program ending, and the increasing anti-immigrant sentiments in America do not help.
“People don’t realize how their words are affecting people emotionally,” she said. ”Under DACA, many immigrants are able to pay for and finish school. It helps them take advantage of educational opportunities.”
If fear becomes a reality, Medina says his fears are calmed when he remembers God’s provision in Nueva Vida.
“I’m grateful to New Life that Pastor Paco and Pastor Chris [Ophus] have supported me and are advocates of immigrant communities,” Medina said. “It would suck to go back to Mexico, but I’m not worried. I’ll take my guitar and praise God in every language.”
The Medinas are confident that God will always be on their side and Jesus will pull them through the hard times, just as the Padillas and several other Christian immigrants living and serving at Nueva Vida are. With an executive order threatening their future, separating families and separating them from the comforts of home, one truth prevails among them: “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
In light of the state of immigration in America, how should a Christian treat their immigrant neighbor? What if they faced deportation? What if they were “undocumented?”
For more on this, listen to the Immigration workshop track from Legacy Chicago 2017 online or on the Legacy Disciple app.