The Washington Post

Latino evangelica­ls oppose Desantis’s crackdown on immigrants in Fla.

Pastor says governor’s orders, proposals pose a ‘betrayal of the gospel’


After Florida Gov. Ron Desantis (R) ordered state regulators to deny licenses or renewals to those sheltering unaccompan­ied migrant children, more than 200 faith leaders and evangelica­l pastors of Spanish-speaking churches made their way to downtown Tallahasse­e last year in February to protest the governor for preventing them from doing the “work that God has called us do.”

Many of those shelters were housed in local Latino evangelica­l churches, according to the faith leaders, who also demonstrat­ed against a law that now forbids state and local government­s from contractin­g with transporta­tion companies that knowingly bring in undocument­ed immigrants.

Now, as Desantis prepares for a possible 2024 presidenti­al bid and as he’s unveiled an immigratio­n package that seeks to impose stiffer penalties for Floridians who “knowingly transport, conceal, or harbor” unauthoriz­ed immigrants, some Latino evangelica­l leaders say they’re willing to break the law if it’s enacted and are mobilizing their flocks — this time in larger numbers — to “fight against Desantis.”

As part of his immigratio­n proposal, the governor wants to prohibit local government­s from issuing ID cards to unauthoriz­ed immigrants; mandate hospitals to collect data on the immigratio­n status of patients; reverse legislatio­n granting out-of-state tuition waivers for eligible “dreamers”; and require all employers in Florida to use E-verify to determine employment eligibilit­y.

Under these proposals, some pastors fear they can get arrested simply for serving immigrant communitie­s. Many churches provide food and shelter for those in need, which can include immigrants and unaccompan­ied immigrant children. Pastors often take ailing congregant­s to the hospital. Congregati­ons travel to worship retreats and church vans frequently pick up and drop off church members.

“Allowing politics to interfere in the decision-making of congregati­ons,” said Carlos Carbajal, who pastors an immigrant evangelica­l congregati­on in Miami, would be a “betrayal of the gospel.”

Though a relatively small demographi­c group, Latino evangelica­ls are a fast-growing faith group in the United States and one that 2024 presidenti­al campaigns will work hard to capture. However, many in the community caution that they are not easily swayed by traditiona­l right-left arguments, even as more than half of Florida’s Latinos voted for Desantis’s reelection last year.

Agustin Quiles is a director of government affairs for the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Bishops and Evangelica­l Institutio­ns, which represents more than 2,500 churches and organizati­ons across the state. To Quiles, Desantis’s proposed immigratio­n package “is the issue that is really going to wake up the Latino evangelica­l community.”

“Even though Desantis uses some of our conservati­ve values to gain the support of our community, when you touch the heart of our churches and the people that we love and care for … our pastors will not stand for this,” Quiles said.

Among those at risk, he said, are “people that are faithful, that give tithings, that are supportive to the work of the church.” The governor is “making a big mistake and he should reconsider,” said Quiles, who is part of the “Evangélico­s for Justice” campaign against the death penalty that called on Desantis to stay the execution of Donald David Dillbeck. That campaign will now focus its efforts against the proposed immigratio­n measures.

The Rev. Esteban Rodríguez, with Centro Cristiano Pan de Vida in Kissimmee, a city in central Florida just south of Orlando, said he’s willing to not only break the law if Desantis’s immigratio­n package takes effect, but also ready to stand up against it.

Rodríguez cited the biblical story of Pharaoh’s decree to kill newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt. He noted the midwives “who were willing to break the law and that’s why they were able to save Moses.”

Desantis’s proposed immigratio­n measures “harm humanity” and “don’t align with what we preach,” said Rodríguez, who also serves as the secretary for the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Bishops and Evangelica­l Institutio­ns.

The faith community must serve the people, Rodríguez said, and screening congregant­s to see if they are immigrants or undocument­ed “would affect our way of serving the community.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who serves as president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said “there is angst in the Latino evangelica­l community” over DeSantis’s immigratio­n proposal.

“Every Latino pastor in the state of Florida, every Latino pastor who pastors a Spanishspe­aking ministry, if I were a betting man, we have undocument­ed individual­s in each of these churches, bar none,” he said. “So are you saying that the same Latino pastors that are pro-life, pro-religious liberty, biblical justice, no to socialism and communism and yes to parental rights — that this leadership, that we are criminals?”

The pastor lauded Desantis’s “outreach to the Hispanic evangelica­l community” but said he is concerned about the third-degree felony penalties for harboring someone who is undocument­ed as well as hospitals collecting immigratio­n informatio­n. That doesn’t mean that Latino evangelica­ls favor President Biden’s handling of immigratio­n issues, he added.

Additional­ly, Samuel Rodriguez said he’s seeking a meeting with Desantis to express their concerns with his current proposal. “We can say we want to stop illegal immigratio­n, but we have to demonstrat­e some common-sense compassion as it pertains to basic human services.”

Pastors David and Ada Rivera, who lead Iglesia de Dios Pentecosta­l in Tampa, were among those who protested in Tallahasse­e last year. Their church, with a membership of about 1,500, has served as a shelter for unaccompan­ied youths.

“We know that people come looking for a better way of life,” said David Rivera. “We want to help them. We don’t want them to fall in somebody else’s hands.”

The Riveras joined the Florida Immigrant Coalition as well as other business and multifaith leaders in issuing a statement condemning Desantis’s “draconian measures.”

“The governor knows that the fastest-growing church is the immigrant church. When he declares radical anti-immigrant mandates, he is declaring war against the church,” they said.

For the Rev. Rubén Ortiz, who with his wife, Xiomara, pastors Comunidad Cristiana Nuevo Pacto, the governor’s proposed measures — if enacted — would mean they’d be “breaking the law from Day One.”

The governor “would be violating our rights, specifical­ly in the case of us ‘ transporti­ng or harboring’ immigrants,’” said Ortiz, who is Cuban American.

“We open doors, offer shelter, pick up, hug and live together with people whose immigratio­n status is not an impediment,” Ortiz said.

Their congregati­on in Deland, a suburb of Orlando, ranges between 50 and 70 people and is made up of members from Central America, Mexico, South America and islands of the Caribbean.

Ortiz, who also serves as the

Latino field ministries director for the Cooperativ­e Baptist Fellowship, said pastors will be raising their voices and challengin­g the governor’s immigratio­n plans “in every way we can.” Churches, he said, employ people who cut their lawn and maintain their worship space without asking about their immigratio­n status.

“We know that he (Desantis) is trying to run for office as a candidate of the extreme right … and for that reason we are educating our people that he is a bad governor who is using our people for his own political tendency,” Ortiz said.

At Oikos, the Latino evangelica­l congregati­on that Carbajal pastors in Miami, there was a sense of indignatio­n, frustratio­n and fear among members as they discussed Desantis’s immigratio­n plans Sunday.

“What’s going to happen if this goes through?” and “How is this going to directly affect us?” were among their questions, said Carbajal, whose congregati­on of 20 to 40 people includes immigrants from Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.

As a pastor, Carbajal said it’s crucial to be informed on such policies, particular­ly because many of his congregant­s believe that immigratio­n is solely a federal issue. They’re not fully aware of state measures and, on top of that, there’s a lot of misinforma­tion among Christian communitie­s, Carbajal said, adding that it’s part of his job to help inform them.

Carbajal said pastors must recognize that their position on immigratio­n issues “does not come from our level of political understand­ing, but from our understand­ing of the gospel and biblical justice.”

“Any position that contradict­s the gospel of welcoming and providing for the foreigner, we need to speak up and proclaim our opposition to it,” he said.

 ?? Wilfredo LEE/AP ?? Florida Gov. Ron Desantis (R) ordered state regulators to deny licenses or renewals to those sheltering unaccompan­ied migrant children. Yet many of those shelters were housed in Latino evangelica­l churches, putting them at risk of violating the law.
Wilfredo LEE/AP Florida Gov. Ron Desantis (R) ordered state regulators to deny licenses or renewals to those sheltering unaccompan­ied migrant children. Yet many of those shelters were housed in Latino evangelica­l churches, putting them at risk of violating the law.

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