Congressional briefing planned for Pastor Max deportation anniversary

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Federal lawmakers will be reminded on Monday about the plight of Max Villatoro, a Mennonite pastor who was deported a year ago, and the family he was forced to leave behind in Iowa.

The Mennonite Central Committee and Central Plains Mennonite Conference — the religious organizations Pastor Max was affiliated with — has planned two Congressional briefings, one for senators and the other for representatives. Both are slated to discuss how U.S. immigration officials are violating their own policies.

Pastor Max was removed from his Iowa City home while his wife showered, the contact part of a federal government sweep intended to target the “worst of the worst” immigrant criminal elements in the country. After entering the country in 1995, he had a 1999 DUI conviction in Johnson County, as well as a conviction in Muscatine County for using a fake name while attempting to obtain state identification. He served a suspended sentence, and had no further run-ins with the law until Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrived at the home he shared with his wife and four children.

Work continues on the multi-year project to restore the dome of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC on Thursday, Apr. 16, 2015.
Work continues on the multi-year project to restore the dome of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC on Thursday, Apr. 16, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Sunday marks the first anniversary of Pastor Max’s deportation to Honduras.

Reynold Garcia was coerced into leaving church property in Schaumburg, Ill. when ICE officials, posing as local law enforcement, falsely claimed his cousin had been in an automobile accident. Garcia was deported to Mexico in January.

Both men’s stories will be featured in the Washington briefings.

Pastor Max’s wife, Gloria, who continues to lead Iglesia Torre Fuerte, the Iowa City church congregation the couple founded, will speak at the briefings. As will Villatoro attorney David Leopold. Pastor Gerson Moreno of the Christian Pentecostal Church in Schaumburg will presumably offer details surrounding the Garcia case.

Church leaders as well as the Iowa-based Friends of Pastor Max group contend that federal immigration policies implemented under the guise of keeping families together should have mandated discretion. They hold, and I personally agree, that under those policies Pastor Max posed no threat to society, most definitely was not the “worst of the worst” and, therefore, should not have been forcibly removed from his home or deported from the country.

Max Villatoro with his wife, Gloria, and four children.
Max Villatoro with his wife, Gloria, and four children. (courtesy Gloria Villatoro)

If Villatoro — father of four and church leader with a valid work permit — didn’t qualify for supposedly mandated federal discretion, it is difficult to see how anyone could.

Second District Congressman Dave Loebsack introduced a bill in December, HR 4261, that would allow Pastor Max to either receive an immigrant visa or have his status changed to an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence. Either outcome would allow Pastor Max to reunite with his family and his church.

While movement in the GOP-controlled House, operating within the extreme climate of a presidential election year, isn’t likely, church leaders still see value in discussing how failed and inconsistent immigration policies are harming the faith community.

We should all pray that members of Congress show up — and listen.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 19, 2016. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette