Latino churches fear immigration raids
Arizona Republic
May 19, 2008


Tucson, Arizona | Published:

By Daniel Gonzalez

PHOENIX Once a month, Manuel Maldonado leads a group on a spiritual retreat to the mountains in Central Arizona, where out in nature members feel closer to God.

But an April 12 retreat to a campground near Prescott was devastating to the group.

A camper complained the group was making too much noise. Yavapai County sheriff's deputies arrived, questioned the church members about their citizenship and called federal immigration officials. Nine church members, including the pastor, Maldonado, were detained; seven were later deported to Mexico.

"We are brothers who went there to praise God, and they treated us like delinquents," said Maldonado, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Agape in west Phoenix.

The deportations have sent a shock wave through the large and fast-growing network of Latino evangelical churches in Arizona and across the nation, many of which are filled with undocumented immigrants.

Pastors fearful of stepped-up immigration enforcement are canceling retreats north of the Phoenix area. Some national church leaders are concerned the deportations could open the door for immigration raids at churches.

The Prescott deportations echoed incidents in metro Phoenix that have raised tensions between church leaders and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. A crime sweep by sheriff's deputies in September resulted in arrests of undocumented day laborers near a church sanctuary in Cave Creek, and another on Good Friday led to arrests of illegal immigrants in east Phoenix.

"We don't feel safe for the Latino people," said Hector Ramirez, pastor of Iglesia Wesleyana in Phoenix. He recently canceled a trip to the Assembly of God Camp in Prescott that involved seven metro Phoenix Latino evangelical churches and 80 members.

"We are afraid not only that our undocumented members could be deported but that members with papers could be hassled about their immigration and detained," he said.

Authorities say they aren't targeting church gatherings or churches. The Prescott incident was in response to a noise complaint. The deportations, however, show how local police, even in rural areas, are becoming more aggressive in calling federal authorities when they encounter possible illegal immigrants.

The men from Maldonado's church originally planned to hold their spiritual retreat near Sedona. They changed plans after hearing that police in Northern and Central Arizona were cracking down on smugglers transporting loads of illegal immigrants.

They decided instead to hold their retreat at the White Spar Family Campground.

The church's worship style is loud and animated. But at the campground, Maldonado said, they kept their voices down.

"We were praying and singing very peacefully," he said.

A little after 7 a.m., Yavapai County sheriff's deputies arrived and said someone had complained about noise.

Deputies asked members for identification and, after several showed Mexican ID cards, began asking church members whether they were in the country illegally. After they said yes, a deputy called Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"At this point, we were terrified," Maldonado said.

An ICE official questioned each member over the phone and determined that nine of the 12 were possibly in the country illegally. Deputies handcuffed them and drove them to the Prescott jail in vans, Maldonado said. ICE officials then transported them to Phoenix for processing.

Alfredo Aragon, a Latino Christian missionary, said spiritual retreats are an important aspect of church life. They provide members a chance to worship in solitude away from the distractions of the city, he said. Many congregations hold retreats once a month in places such as Sedona, Flagstaff, Payson and Prescott, especially during the warmer months, he said.

Now, "the ones who don't have papers are not going to want to travel to these places," Aragon said.

Local and national church leaders say they are afraid the deportations may open the door for law-enforcement officials to begin conducting immigration raids at churches. Along with schools and hospitals, they have generally been regarded as off-limits.

"The federal government basically had ... an unstated agreement with the church, with clergy that said, 'We are never going to go into your churches. We are not going to go and ask you to identify who is undocumented. We respect your constitutional right . . . to exercise your religious convictions,' "said Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Rodriguez contends that spiritual retreats are considered by law an extension of churches because, under the U.S. Constitution, people have the right to worship freely.

ICE officials would not comment about Rodriguez's statement that ICE has an unofficial policy not to question people in churches about immigration status.

"If they were all white, and they were making noise and they were celebrating with Celtic music and the local authorities were to come in, would they have asked for proof of citizenship? My inclination is absolutely not," Rod-riguez said.

Dwight D'Evelyn, a spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department, denied deputies racially profiled to question the church members about their citizenship. He pointed out that the deputies were responding to a noise complaint.

D'Evelyn said it is standard procedure for deputies to ask for identification while investigating crimes.

"Whether it is a church group or a bunch of bikers, it doesn't matter," he said.

The department has a policy against asking crime victims or witnesses about their immigration status. But deputies have discretion to call ICE if they encounter someone they suspect is in the country illegally, D'Evelyn said.

Meanwhile, Maldonado is back living with his wife and five children in a trailer park and preaching at his 70-member church.

Maldonado was taken to a federal detention center in Florence, where he spent 17 days.

He was released April 29 after pastors and church members raised $4,000 for his bond. He is awaiting a deportation hearing