Latino evangelical pastors push back on Florida’s demonization of the undocumented | Opinion

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Once again, a ghastly tragedy on the U.S.’ Southern border — a fire this week at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, that killed at least 39 people — is reminding us that we can’t, or shouldn’t, put off immigration reform in this country any longer.

But, once again, it also reminds us that, of course, we’ll keep putting it off, because the political rewards of putting it off are much too rich for much too many U.S. politicians.

And, once again, Exhibit A is Florida.

A bill that may well glide through the Florida Legislature in the coming weeks like a sailboat on Biscayne Bay would, among a host of other punitive provisions, make it a crime to give an undocumented immigrant a ride to a job, a school, a doctor, a grocery store. The measure would make that tantamount to human smuggling.

The proposal’s supporters say it’s meant to flash a law-enforcement strobe light on illegal immigration and “make the federal government react” with tougher enforcement at the crisis-ridden border, says Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, who introduced the bill at Gov. DeSantis’ urging.

If/when it passes and DeSantis signs it into law, it will no doubt be a Top 10 anti-immigration hit with most Florida voters and, more important, the millions of xenophobic MAGA voters DeSantis is chasing for his near-certain presidential run. But there’s one bloc of DeSantis devotees whose absence might throw cold water on the enactment celebration: Latino evangelical pastors.

America’s burgeoning Latino evangelical flock seems perfectly contento when politicos like DeSantis minimalize abortion rights, marginalize transgender teens or demonize so-called “socialists.” But its shepherds apparently draw the line when Republicans criminalize their ministry to Mexican, Central American, South American and Caribbean immigrants — especially, they say, the most of vulnerable of them, the undocumented.

The idea that Florida will make it a felony for pastors to “harbor” those migrants in their churches is one piece of nativist overreach they “will not stand for,” Agustin Quiles of the Florida Fellowship of Hispanic Bishops and Evangelical Institutions told the Religion News Service this month.

They’re following a Christian tenet that recalls Jesus and his family themselves were once undocumented immigrants seeking refuge from a homicidal dictator. But if you read their complaints about the Florida bill, you also sense a call not just for a more Christian but a more common-sense approach to fixing America’s grossly wrecked immigration system.

Gang terror

That brings us to a country that felt the worst toll of Monday night’s detention center fire in Juárez, which was reportedly set by migrants upset about learning they were being deported home instead of being allowed to seek asylum in the United States.

Twenty-eight of the victims burned alive in that blaze were from Guatemala. Along with El Salvador and Honduras, it is part of Central America’s destitute and gang-terrorized Northern Triangle, long a major source of desperate migrants showing up on the U.S.’ doorstep. Guatemalans are a large share of Florida’s undocumented immigrant population — meaning, they’re an important part of the labor cohort who prop up the state’s vital tourism, agriculture and construction sectors — as a visit to a community like Lake Worth makes clear.

Yet, as Central Americans — absurdly and inexplicably — they were historically all but shut out of the U.S.’ H-2 seasonal labor visa program.

President Biden has certainly been caught flat-footed by the border crisis — and that has certainly opened the door for anti-immigration grandstanding like the Florida bill. But last year his administration, to help compensate for Congress’ unconscionable inaction, generated some fresh ideas — like extending those H-2 passes to Guatemalans and Northern Triangle workers to help alleviate the flow of illegal, and dangerous, migration from that region.

Giving those folks the chance to temporarily but legally come here and make crisp U.S. dollars, go home and then legally return to the United States to repeat the process, makes a lot more sense than arresting pastors for “harboring” them in Florida churches.

Which is essentially what all those Latino evangelical clerics in Florida are saying. They want to know why the governor and the party they’ve so strongly supported for so long now seem more interested in political profit than in Christian common sense.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.