Putting a human face on illegal immigration

Get Religion crickets, prepare to chirp. You guessed it: I'm going to write about media coverage of evangelicals and immigration reform. Again

To read my previous posts, click here, here, here and here. My basic complaint in each of those posts: broad generalizations about a complicated issue.

More than once, I have voiced my desire to see a reporter interview ordinary Christians about the issue rather than rely on an advocacy group's talking points.

Enter Bob Smietana, award-winning Godbeat scribe for The Tennessean.

A recent feature by Smietana focused on one family — and one Tennessee church — touched by the immigration issue:

NASHVILLE — The smiling faces of Heren and Ricardo Morales flashed on the screen just before the start of a recent Sunday morning service at MJLife Church in Mount Juliet, Tenn.

Below the photo, taken on their wedding day, was a simple, three-word prayer: "Bring Ricardo Home."

In March 2012, Ricardo Morales, who's 24, traveled to his home country of Mexico in the first step toward becoming a legal resident in the United States. He left behind his 26-year-old wife Heren, his stepson Ozman, 8, and daughter Miranda, 3.

A year and more than $7,000 in legal fees later, Ricardo is stuck in immigration limbo. His case may not be resolved for another year or more. As his wife and church family pray and write letters in his support, their pastor says Ricardo's story has changed his own views on immigration reform. Church members say Ricardo's plight shows just how broken the system is.

"They have done everything they are supposed to do," said Richelle Tramel, a church friend. "They have paid every dime they are supposed to pay. He is still not home."

Here's the beauty of a story such as this: It takes a gigantic issue — immigration reform — and puts a real human face on it.

Read on, and we learn that Ricardo and Heren, a U.S. citizen, met and fell in love and became a beloved part of the church family.

That leads to the drama at the heart of the story:

Still, Heren said that one worry remained: Ricardo was in the country illegally. He told her about his legal status when they met, but "it's the kind of thing you overlook when you fall in love," she said.

The couple was particularly worried about the now-shuttered 287(g) program in Davidson County, Tenn. At the time, immigrants with no legal status could be deported after minor offenses such as fishing without a license.

"If you got caught, they just took you away and you'd have to leave your family behind," she said.

Heren and Ricardo decided to try to get him legal status.

That legal process required Ricardo to leave the country while he applied to return to his family. But as The Tennessean reports, admitting to crossing the border illegally means an automatic 10-year ban, unless Ricardo can get a hardship waiver:

To get a waiver, Heren must prove that Ricardo's absence has caused extreme hardship. She's had to work two jobs since he left, along with caring for Ozman and her ailing dad. It's putting a huge strain on the family, she said.

Daily phone calls with Ricardo keep her going. He's in Piedras Negras, a border town just south of Eagle River, Texas. "When I am feeling down, he is the one who says, 'Don't give up — keep going to church, keep the faith,' " she said.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics, said that church members, who believe in obeying the law, sometimes see people who are in the country without legal status as bad people. Ricardo's story shows that's not the case, he said.

"This story is yet another reminder of how broken the American immigration system is," he said. "Here is a married family, involved in the church, who wants to do the right thing, and the system is not working for them."

Hmmmmm. The system is broken because Ricardo originally decided to break the law and sneak into the country? I wonder if an advocate with a different take on illegal immigration might have provided a counterpoint to Parham.

But overall, this is a compelling, nicely done story.

Space concerns notwithstanding, I do wish Smietana had included more detail on the couple's thought process. Was the decision to apply for legal status based entirely on fear of getting caught? Did the couple's religious beliefs — the desire to "do the right thing," as the Baptist ethicist insinuated — play into the decision at all?

On a grander scale, I would love to have seen The Tennessean put this church's experience into the context of the national evangelical debate on immigration reform. But I understand that Smietana — like most daily newspaper writers — does the best he can in a world of finite column inches.

Undoubtedly, adding more background on the big picture would have required stripping the story of real-life human details that made this piece work so well.

Image via Shutterstock

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