Father’s Day without dad


Pastor Max Villatoro, his wife, Gloria, and children Anthony, Edna, Angela, and Aileen. Provided by the Villatoro family

The story of Iowa City pastor Max Villatoro captured hearts inside and outside the Mennonite Church this spring. Many were outraged when “Pastor Max,” as he became known, was picked up outside his home by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and later unjustly deported to Honduras, separating him from his four U.S. citizen children.

For others, Pastor Max’s case brought tension between the biblical call to welcome the stranger (e.g., Exodus 22:21, Matthew 25:35) and to follow the rule of law (Romans 13). One email I received asked: “Why was Max Villatoro here 20 years, but he still is not a US citizen?”

That is an excellent question – without an easy answer.

Because questions of law are not always simple, as far back as biblical times there have been judges to weigh evidence on a case-by-case basis. Pastor Max’s case is an excellent example of why such individual evaluation is so important.

Pastor Max came to the U.S. in 1994 and, for a time, had a temporary legal status but later lost this due to bad legal advice. In the late 1990s, he was convicted of trying to obtain a driver’s license with false identification and DUI. Subsequently, he started a family and became a pastor in the Mennonite Church, helping those struggling with poverty, substance abuse, and other challenges.

For years, the Central Plains Mennonite Conference worked to help Pastor Max fully legalize his status but U.S. immigration officials repeatedly denied these requests. The week of March 2, ICE picked up Pastor Max along with more than 2,000 other immigrants, most with similarly old convictions for DUI or drug possession.

According to ICE policy, however, many of those individuals should not have deported. In the case of Pastor Max, ICE should have considered his “positive equities” – i.e., that he had been in the U.S. for 20 years, that he has a wife and four young children, that his convictions were more than 15 years in the past, and that he had become a pastor and leader in his community.

You can advocate on behalf of Pastor Max and others by sending a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, urging ICE to follow their own policies and stop deporting fathers away from their families.

Though we lost the struggle to keep Pastor Max with his family, I was inspired by the outpouring of love and support from Mennonites and others across the U.S., and by the powerful yet humble appeals to the U.S. government for mercy. For 17 days, there was an unprecedented effort involving thousands of petition signatures, hundreds of phone calls, and numerous other actions. When I meet with ICE or Homeland Security officials today, everyone knows about Pastor Max Villatoro. We made our voices heard.

And, though it is difficult to bring someone back to the U.S. after deportation, I hope and pray that Pastor Max can be reunited with his family soon. His children should not have to spend another Father’s Day without their dad.