A Seventh-day Adventist family who are members of the Pasadena Spanish SDA Church in Houston, Texas, are at the center of the Trump administration policy of massive deportations of illegal immigrants. The wife and daughters of Juan Rodríguez filed a lawsuit on June 19, 2017 against US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, seeking to bar a deportation order that was supposed to go into effect on June 29, 2017. The family argues that deporting him would be unconstitutional because it would violate their Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs. The family “seek[s] to vindicate their constitutionality protected right to fully exercise their religion and to enjoin their father-husband's imminent deportation by federal immigration authorities.”
Born in El Salvador, Juan is married to Celia who is a US citizen, and they have three daughters, all US citizens. Juan entered the US in 2001 seeking work. Shortly thereafter, he was detained by immigration officers and entered into a voluntary departure program. Juan never left but reported to ICE periodically. He was able to maintain a clean criminal record, pays taxes, has been an active member of his local church as a deacon and built a quintessential American family, the suit states. For this reason, Juan does not fit the description of the latino “bad hombres” which Trump used as a battle cry during his presidential campaign.
Under the auspices of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), the lawsuit argues that separating the family “imposes a substantial burden on Plaintiffs' religious exercise and coerces them to change or violate their sincerely held religious beliefs…” More specifically, the suit argues that deporting Rodríguez violates SDA Fundamental Belief #23 “Marriage and the Family” which states:
“Marriage was divinely established in Eden and affirmed by Jesus to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship. For the Christian a marriage commitment is to God as well as to the spouse, and should be entered into only between a man and a woman who share a common faith. Mutual love, honor, respect, and responsibility are the fabric of this relationship, which is to reflect the love, sanctity, closeness, and permanence of the relationship between Christ and His church. Regarding divorce, Jesus taught that the person who divorces a spouse, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery. Although some family relationships may fall short of the ideal, a man and a woman who fully commit themselves to each other in Christ through marriage may achieve loving unity through the guidance of the Spirit and the nurture of the church. God blesses the family and intends that its members shall assist each other toward complete maturity. Increasing family closeness is one of the earmarks of the final gospel message. Parents are to bring up their children to love and obey the Lord. By their example and their words they are to teach them that Christ is a loving, tender, and caring guide who wants them to become members of His body, the family of God which embraces both single and married persons. (Gen. 2:18-25; Exod. 20:12; Deut. 6:5-9; Prov. 22:6; Mal. 4:5, 6; Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:3-9, 12; Mark 10:11, 12; John 2:1-11; 1 Cor. 7:7, 10, 11; 2 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:21-33; 6:1-4.)”
The lawsuit argues that "Plaintiffs' sincerely held religious beliefs as Adventists require them to be together with their parents and to live as a family until at least the children's complete maturity.”
Moreover, because the family intends to follow him to El Salvador should Rodríguez be deported, their departure would amount to a “de facto religious deportation of the entire family to a known violent war zone of unimaginable violence.” El Salvador is part of a US State Department “travel warning” due to the “high rates of crime and violence.”1
The case is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, current immigration law already has provisions for familial unity under certain circumstances through “following to join benefits.”2 These benefits safeguard the right of spouses and children to gain legal status in the US based on a spouse’s/parent’s legal status, especially if they were married before the benefits were granted to one of them, which appears to be the case for the Rodríguezs. The argument that a family of diverse legal status should not be broken up certainly builds on the fundamental principle of “following to join” benefits and deserves attention by legislators. It is also curious why the Rodríguezs did not pursue legalization earlier. Juan's wife has been a US citizen since 2010 but only filed a petition of Alien Relative on his behalf in March 2017. This may complicate matters.
Former Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina who is part of the legal team defending Rodríguez believes they “have a very strong case”3 while other legal analysts have cast doubt on the chances of the lawsuit being successful. Legal analyst Gerald Treece calls it “a long shot” which could “knock the door down” for countless other similar cases.4
The case has garnered significant media attention with a special report on Univision, local TV stations, and several websites including conservative blog Breitbart and the Daily Caller. The Houston Chronicle has also run extensive reporting on the story.
Sentiment has been mixed on the part of Adventists on social media and blogs with some showing support for the family while others question whether “family unity” is a real fundamental belief of the Seventh-day Adventist church to the extent that separating a parent would infringe on a religious practice. Others are concerned whether it is of “good witness” to involve the name of the church in the case of illegal actions on the part of church members.
Adventist attorney and author David Read calls the case “a novel legal theory” which “would have more weight if the SDA Church actually taught the biblical model of patriarchy. Sad, we do not.” Instead, Read bemoans that the Adventist church in North America now promotes “female headship.”5 The lawsuit, however, does not hinge on “patriarchalism” and “male headship” but rather on familial unity.
On Friday, June 23, 2017, the lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice by Judge Lee Rosenthal, which allows the attorneys to refile. On Monday, June 26, 2017, ICE officials granted the family 60 days of “prosecutorial discretion.” In the meantime, Rodríguez’s attorneys plan on filing an Application for Asylum on his behalf based on the same arguments present in the lawsuit. Although officially unrelated to the lawsuit, it’s hard not to see the stay of deportation as a result of the legal proceedings.
It is likely that the case's legal theory will continue to reverberate in similar cases currently being fought in the courts. Conflating immigration law and religious liberty concerns may eventually prove effective. It is only a matter of time before a forum conveniens decides in favor of plaintiffs found in the same predicament as Rodríguez. For example, in its decision to block Trump’s religion-based travel ban, the 9th District Court of Appeals cites the pertinent precedent that:
“‘[N]ational defense’ cannot be deemed an end in itself, justifying any exercise of legislative power designed to promote such a goal. . . . It would indeed be ironic if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of one of those liberties . . . which makes the defense of the Nation worthwhile.”6
As Medina avers, “Deporting the spiritual leader and sole financial provider, and a loving father who pays taxes and has committed no crimes in the US, tears at the fabric of our country.”(7)
The case of the Rodríguez family is emblematic of the plight of hundreds of thousands of undocumented Seventh-Day Adventists who make a significant contribution to the church in America. The NAD has even created the Adventist Refugee and Immigrant Ministries whose mission is to “share the Gospel with refugees in North America, and immigrants from least-reached people group.”
Much of the growth in NAD membership occurs in immigrant groups, particularly in Spanish-speaking churches. A Hispanic church in my area just purchased a multi-million dollar complex which barely serves the needs of their vibrant church school, bustling children’s Sabbath School and filled-to-capacity weekly services. My local conference has a large lay pastoral ministry serving mostly immigrants which will soon serve as a model for the NAD. It is hard to ignore the fact that Adventist immigrants have prospered in North America, which leads one to question whether national borders and “legal status” really matter in God’s eyes.
How should the church in North America respond to the immigration crisis raging in our communities? At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post in support of refugees and immigrants. Speaking as a Canadian immigrant himself, Jackson closed his thoughts with a poignant appeal:
"As but a stranger in your land, I ask that you not close the golden door — the door that offers sanctuary and the possibility of a new life to strangers in far greater need.”
Rodríguez’s story may present another opportunity for the NAD to reiterate its commitment not only to the biblical model of family unity but also to caring “for the stranger who dwells among you” (Lev 19:34).
André Reis is completing a PhD in New Testament Studies. He writes from Orlando, FL.
Image Credit: Video still from footage via khou.com.
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