California pastor caught in immigration enforcement blitz

Posted at 3:47 PM, Aug 07, 2017

The Rev. Noe Carias shuffles into the cramped room, his face immediately pleasant upon seeing strangers. He's well practiced in his pastoral craft of comforting parishioners.

But the pastor isn't in ministerial clothes. He sits down, wearing a blue prison uniform. Carias' name is printed on a plastic band attached to his left wrist. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer tells Carias he has 20 minutes before he needs to return to detention.

"I think first my lord, Jesus Christ," says the pastor, "then my wife, my children, my church. I think God is going to make a miracle to release me, set me free from this place."

Carias, 42, is being held at the Adelanto Detention Facility, in California's high desert, for crossing the border illegally in the 1990s.

The Guatemalan native had been trying to correct his immigration status since 2014, and ICE had granted him yearly stays. That ended this year at his most recent ICE check-in, when Carias was informed he would be arrested and deported.

"I've never been arrested by police," he says. "I'm a minister. I have my American citizen wife, being married for 14 years. I have two kids. I support the economy of this country and I paying my taxes. I never commit crime in this country."

Carias is one of the undocumented immigrants the administration of former President Barack Obama considered less of a priority, as ICE officers focused on deporting felons. Under President Donald Trump, the policy has shifted.

ICE guidelines now direct officers to "take enforcement action against all removable aliens." ICE has reported that in the first 100 days after President Trump signed executive orders on immigration enforcement, arrests of undocumented immigrants with no other criminal convictions were up more than 50% compared to last year.

Aside from Carias, other religious leaders who have been arrested on immigration violations include a Georgia deacon and his wife, a pastor in Northern Virginia and a minister in Oceanside, California.

'I'm not a bad hombre'

"We agree this government should remove the criminal, the bad people. The ones who come to this country to only do bad things," Carias says. "I'm not that kind of person. I'm not a bad hombre. If they remove me, that's a signal they want to remove every people (sic) who do good things, right things in the United States of America."

About 100 miles away in Los Angeles, the pastor's wife, Vicky Carias, breaks down in front of their two children, age 5 and 6. It's something she's been trying to avoid since her husband was detained on July 24, because the children don't understand why their father was arrested. They know the Sunday service was filled with tearful prayers and that the parishioners, just like their mother, told them not to worry.

"I just tell them, 'Daddy's going to be home soon. Be patient. We have to just pray. We have a powerful God.'" Vicky Carias pauses. She turns her words to her President:

"This is hurting a whole family, my kids and myself. The church, the congregation, we're all hurting. We want to get things right. We've been trying to get it right. Please, have mercy on us."

According to ICE, Carias is "a repeat immigration violator who has assumed multiple identities and nationalities over the years in order to evade federal immigration enforcement."

Carias' attorney, Noemi Ramirez, says that explanation oversimplifies her client's history. Ramirez says Carias has never stolen an identity or used false documents in the United States, but did verbally tell immigration officials he was from Mexico instead of Guatemala, because he feared returning to his country and being killed.

Carias says he was kidnapped by Guatemalan guerillas when he was 7 years old and held until he was 12, when he managed to escape. In the meantime, Carias' parents, believing their child was dead, fled to Mexico. Carias says he eventually tracked down his family in Tijuana but then continued north, making his way illegally into the United States, to work in the agricultural fields.

His first encounter with US immigration was when Carias was still underage. Two more deportation orders followed, the last in 1995. Carias slipped into the shadows to avoid being sent back across the border.

He built a life in the United States, and in his early 20s he found God's calling and turned to pastoral work. Carias met and married Vicky, then had two children. He established an Evangelical Assemblies of God church near downtown Los Angeles. The family recently bought a modest home there.

Evangelical ministers see a challenge

To evangelical ministers in California, Carias' case signals a challenge for their church, one the faith's leaders and white members are failing to act upon. White evangelicals make up President Trump's political base, with more than 80% voting for him in the election.

But the very people being arrested and deported, says the Rev. Juan Martinez with the Fuller Seminary, are evangelical.

"The future of the church in the United States is brown," says Martinez. "The church in the United States will be browner than it is today. You're deporting a fellow believer of Jesus Christ. You're deporting a person from your own denomination. You're deporting someone who might be in your church."

Seven evangelical ministers and one Presbyterian minister spoke with CNN, all urging white faith leaders to do more in the face of detentions and deportations of their Latino parishioners and pastors.

The Rev. Zach Hoover, a member of the religious grass-roots group PICO National Network, says as a white pastor, he sees what's happening to the Latino faithful as a moral turning point for all evangelicals.

"I want to say to my fellow white evangelicals, how important is the 'white' part of that? What are we going to say to Latinos in the pews or the children of people who were deported, who end up staying here? What are we going to tell them we did at this moment? That we walked with their parents or that we had other things to do?"

The Rev. Ada Valiente with the First Baptist Church of Maywood, California, says evangelicals need to re-evaluate where church teachings collide with secular politics. "What are the real values we have?" she asks. "Is it just abortion? Anti-abortion? Yes, we are. But we're also pro-family. Family is important as a country. If we don't keep families together, what are we going to do as a church?"

In a statement to CNN, the National Association of Evangelicals urged compassion in the cases of their pastors and parishioners who have been arrested by ICE. The NAE, which represents more than 45,000 local churches and serves a constituency of millions, said, "Millions of immigrants are growing America's churches and these immigrants need pastors. Instead of routinely deporting good spiritual leaders, we need to provide pathways to legal status. Our laws are important and so is justice, compassion and common sense that goes with the enforcement of immigration laws."

Hoover, while crediting evangelical leadership for publicly supporting the pastors, is blunt in his assessment of the leadership of his church. "No, it's not enough. It's not enough until this stops, until we aren't sitting here talking about a pastor sitting however many miles it is from here in a terrible detention center. We need you right now. Today you have a choice, and we need you to choose to stand with us."

Alexia Salvatierra, with grass-roots religious group Matthew 25, says the conversations are happening within evangelical churches, but real change remains slow. "We've been talking about mercy in the church. But we also need to talk about justice. The immigration system is unfair and inhumane."

What's next for Carias?

Carias' attorney has filed a motion to reopen his 1995 immigration case. As he awaits a move by the courts, the pastor says he's ministering fellow detainees at Adelanto Detention Center. Included in his prayers is one for Donald Trump.

"I pray for the President. The Bible say, pray for our leaders," says Carias. "I also want to ask President Trump for compassion. I'm never going to lose my faith. I love my family. I love this country."