MIAMI, Fla. – When Pastor José Acosta took five men from his Florida congregation on his fishing boat one Friday, he had no idea the men would be separated from their families by the end of the day.
Acosta thought this was just another outing on the water, a common activity he offered the men of Jesús Redentor de Vidas Brethren in Christ congregation of Lake Worth. They would socialize, and he would get a chance to impart some spiritual lessons.
But when they returned to the dock that January day in 2012, they were met by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers who accused Acosta of smuggling the five Honduran men, who had no documentation, into the country.
Desperate at the thought of being deported and separated from their families, the men considered taking off in the boat or swimming away, but decided that would be futile. Pedro Molina managed to alert his pregnant wife by text before an officer took his phone.
“Let my brother go. His wife is pregnant and due anytime,” Darwin Molina pleaded with the ICE officers for Pedro. Darwin himself has two children and his cousin, Robert García, has three. All five men were handcuffed and taken away.
“I was angry,” said García, who had lived in the U.S. for 14 years. He and the Molinas worked as painters. “It broke my heart to think of leaving my children and wife here.”
As the men were taken away, Acosta began searching for an attorney. He learned from another Brethren in Christ pastor about Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast’s immigration program that offers affordable, Christian legal counsel to members of Anabaptist churches in South Florida.
The immigration program offers immigration education, individual consultation and legal representation. Andrew Bodden, MCC East Coast Florida program and diverse constituent coordinator, leads MCC’s Florida immigration program. When immigration situations arise in Anabaptist churches, he is the one pastors call, day or night.
When Acosta called, Bodden offered the men legal services of MCC’s consulting attorney for about one-third of the average legal fees an immigration attorney would charge. Acosta only asked for services for García and the Molinas, because one of the other men was immediately deported and the other hired his own attorney.
Bodden turned the cases over to Rachel Díaz, a consulting attorney for MCC East Coast’s immigration program and a member of La Roca Firme Brethren in Christ church, Hialeah, Fla. She met with them and filed the proper paperwork in their defense.
Díaz, who had done immigration law for 10 years, seven for MCC East Coast, said she pushes each case to its legal conclusion because “each client is a person who works like a mule, doing difficult physical labor, and has a kid in the U.S. or his home country who he’s helping. They have family, they have aspirations and hopes and dreams, and they are part of a community, be it a church community or another.”
Acosta, who estimates that about 70 percent of his 200-member congregation is undocumented, said deportation creates “mayhem” for the family left behind, including loss of income. Children who are separated from their parents tend to rebel, he said.
When the five men were detained in January 2012, the people of Jesús Redentor de Vidas prayed and fasted, and raised funds to support their families while they were in detention. The detainees prayed for a miracle and asked God to give Díaz wisdom to help them.
Through Díaz’s work, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) administratively closed Robert’s case. Without explanation, DHS also closed Darwin’s case, even though it didn’t have the same legal support that Robert’s did. The closures allowed both men to avoid deportation and to get drivers’ licenses, though they do not have work permits.
With tears of happiness and kisses and hugs, the men were reunited with their families within six weeks of being detained.
“God is in this,” said Díaz. “That’s why it’s good work to do. If God’s willing to put his hand in it, I want to partner with God in it.”
Díaz continues to work with Pedro’s case, but she expects his petition for legal status to be granted since he is married to a U.S. citizen and they have a child. Pedro was released from detention in time to be present at the birth of his son, Jayden.
“If we come to this country,” Pedro said, “it’s to be able to support our families. We come from poor countries and poor families. We want to move forward and improve our lives.”
Díaz is pleased with the results of the cases. “Three families are staying together,” she said. “We are hoping for the immigration reform to happen soon, so many of the families, if not all of them, will benefit from it and can be together and not live with fear."