Religious Leaders Face Deportation: Detention Reignites Churches' Call for Immigration Reform

Pastor Magdalena Schwartz speaks with the wives of the detained religious leaders - Photo: Alfa y Omega Church.

Pastor Magdalena Schwartz speaks with the wives of the detained religious leaders. (Photo: Alfa y Omega Church)

PHOENIX, Arizona — A group of eight religious leaders of the Disciples of Christ denomination in Phoenix are facing deportation after being detained by a tribal police department when they were on their way to a spiritual retreat.

The incident that occurred on Sept. 4 has shaken up the Evangelical church community in Phoenix, which is redoubling its efforts to call on President Barack Obama to take action on a comprehensive immigration reform plan.

“We’re planning to send him a letter soon with a group of churches,” said Job Cobos, who oversees the 13 Spanish churches of the Disciples of Christ in Arizona and who is also the pastor of the English-language Larkspur Christian Church.

A caravan of vehicles from the Alfa y Omega Church was driving towards Payson for a weekend spiritual retreat, when one van with nine passengers was pulled over.

The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Police Department stopped the van because it was driving significantly below the speed limit, chief of police Jesse Delmar told Feet in 2 Worlds.

They gave a ticket to the driver because he didn’t have a license and for lack of insurance and registration. Then they asked all passengers for their identification.

“It’s common procedure to do that for all passengers,” said Delmar.

Because they couldn’t produce ID, the police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the chief said. ICE took eight men into custody and released one for health reasons.

“It was just a routine stop,” said Delmar.

But for those who witnessed the arrest, it was more than that.

“The van was identified with the name of our church. They knew we were Hispanic,” said Elias Garcia, a pastor who was driving behind the van. Garcia said they were driving when the police patrol suddenly got in between the vehicles. There was no reason for the van to be stopped, he said.

“I cried and I pleaded with the police to release them. I said: ‘They’re good people. Let them go.’ But they had them handcuffed for two hours, seated on the side of the road, until immigration came for them,” Garcia said.

Garcia approached the police during the arrest. He is still wondering why they didn’t ask him for ID. He is also an undocumented immigrant.

“I’m not afraid to say it,” he said.

Those detained are the parents of at least 15 children in the 250-member church. About half of these children are U.S. citizens, Garcia said.

“They were going to a spiritual retreat. They had their Bibles with them,” said Daniela Valdes, 25, a U.S. citizen and the wife of one the detainees. “People are being taken from their families without any conscience.”

Her husband José Luis de Los Santos, 30, the father of her two children, is currently being held in the Florence Immigration Detention Center.

They’ve been married for a year and she wanted to apply for legal documentation for her husband. But because he entered the country illegally he would have to return to Mexico to apply, facing a three-to-10 year ban against re-entering the country.

“It doesn’t make any sense, you’ll think because I’m a U.S. citizen we could do something,” said Valdes, a Colorado native.

“I’m sure if I had lots of money to hire a very good attorney we could do something,” she said.

Members of the Alfa y Omega Church pray for men in the congregation who were detained. (Photo: Alfa y Omega Church)

Members of the Alfa y Omega Church pray for men in the congregation who were detained. (Photo: Alfa y Omega Church)

The church is currently seeking help from the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix to get legal representation for the men who are still in custody. At least three of them already signed off on their voluntary deportation.

This is not the first time the local Christian churches have felt the heat of the immigration climate in Arizona.

On April 2008, a group of men were singing and praying at a spiritual retreat at a campsite in Prescott when Yavapai County’s deputies showed up. They claimed they were investigating a complaint about noise. They questioned the men’s immigration status and turned them over to ICE custody. One of the men was legally in the country and was arrested by mistake.

The incident was denounced by a large number of evangelical churches in Arizona.

Still the situation has not changed in the state.

“They’ve deported many of our members,” said Pastor Cobos. Because of the proximity to the border the people deported from Arizona are dropped across the line in Nogales, Sonora. But many of them are from other parts of Mexico or haven’t been in the country since they were children.

That’s why Cobos said they are opening a church in Nogales that could receive these people.

“We’re not politicians, we’re pastors,” said Cobos. “We’re pastors who are trying to protect people who are vulnerable, fragile and persecuted.”

He said the Disciples of Christ denomination in Arizona is working on creating an anti-racism committee to deal with issues affecting their Latino membership.

Both Anglos and Hispanics in the church are coming together to discuss these issues and support one another, he added.

The denomination has about 600,000 members nationwide and an anti-racism agenda is among its four priorities, according to its website.

The religious leaders’ detention is a reminder to many in the immigrant community that Maricopa County deputies are not the only ones who can pull them over, leading to deportation. Other police agencies, even those that haven’t signed a 287(g) contract that deputizes their officers as immigration agents, have agreements with ICE that allow them to place a phone call to report on someone.

That’s been an ongoing issue for police departments who want to gain trust from the communities in order to report crimes.

“This has had a devastating impact, but on the other hand it could have a positive result in raising awareness with our Congressmen as to the urgency of immigration reform,” said Magdalena Schwartz, a pastor at the Disciples of the Kingdom Free Methodist Church in Mesa.

Schwartz said ten Hispanic evangelical churches –of different denominations– closed their doors because the membership had gone down due to the current anti-immigrant climate.

“These men they detained were religious leaders, they’re not missing only from their families but also from the service they did in our church,” Pastor Garcia said. “Our American pastors are realizing now what’s going on. This didn’t happen to a DUI offender or a smuggler, they’re touching the body of Christ.”

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.