What a time for attorney Elket Rodríguez to start a new job advocating for immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border on behalf of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Fellowship Southwest.
That was on March 2 — just days before the coronavirus pandemic created massive work and travel shutdowns, sheltering in place and a Trump administration offensive to kill the nation’s immigration and asylum programs.
“It’s more broken than ever,” Rodríguez said of the nation’s immigration system compared to four-plus months ago.
But from CBF’s perspective, the situation would be even worse without Rodríguez on the job, said Stephen Reeves, CBF’s associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy.
“The pandemic has been the rationale for so many punitive actions against immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers,” he said. “Without Elket, we could never have kept up with all the proposed changes.”
Those changes — which Rodríguez documents in CBF and Fellowship Southwest blog posts — include a suspension of certain work visas and restrictions on asylum-seeker work authorizations. It’s also become more difficult for unaccompanied migrant children to enter or remain in the United States.
The 34-year-old father of two from Puerto Rico has shown a remarkable resilience and ability to serve immigrants and those serving them while sheltering in place, said Marv Knox, field coordinator of Fellowship Southwest. “He’s found ways to work hard and to make a difference. He’s put considerable work into building up our advocacy relationships.”
Rodríguez spoke with Baptist News Global about immigration, the pandemic and how the practice of law is a ministry for him.
Are you Baptist?
Yes, but I grew up as part of Christian and Missionary Alliance churches for most of my childhood and youth. When I moved to the U.S., to Texas, I started attending First Baptist Church in Midland, and I loved it. And I loved the doctrines. Now I am a member of Primera Iglesia Bautista — First Baptist Church in Harlingen, Texas.
What Baptist beliefs most appealed to you?
I love church autonomy and soul competency. I still bring my perspective from the Missionary Alliance to the table, especially the emphasis on mission and the focus on the person of Jesus being what unites us. I think God has used all of these concepts to develop my relationship with him and what he wants to do with me at this particular time.
What drew you to work with CBF?
I hooked up with CBF because of its emphasis on missions and its perspective of being God’s presence in the world, not just with our words but with our actions. I love the fact they are so focused on cooperation and on helping you develop the gifts God has given you.
Is the practice of law a ministry for you?
It is. In the beginning I did not look at it as a ministry. There was this battle between doing ministry and practicing law. I have always wanted to be a pastor, but I always knew at the same time I was not going to be a typical pastor who has a church. I do love preaching and teaching. I can teach the Bible any day of the week. But at the same time there was this struggle around the law. Now I see that everything I do, every gift and all my training is in reality a ministry. When I look back, I can see that God knew what he was doing. I find it amazing how God works in mysterious ways.
What was your job supposed to look like pre-pandemic?
Before the pandemic, I was supposed to do more direct, in-person services at the border with migrants. I was to help them with legal consults and filling out immigration applications. I was also to meet their needs by connecting them with the different partner organizations that CBF has and to educate mission groups from different parts of the country about U.S. immigration policy.
What does it look like instead?
I’m working from home — I have been out in the field twice — where I am doing a lot of consults with migrants in Mexico awaiting their cases and with nonprofit leaders and church pastors who call me about situations some of their members are in. And I am writing about what’s happening at the border and with changes in immigration policy.
American immigration policy was considered by many to be broken before the pandemic. What’s it like now?
More broken. When the pandemic started, there were some new policies that made sense, like the travel ban put in place to control the spread of the coronavirus or closing the borders while we tried to adapt. But now it has become the government using COVID-19 to curtail all immigration to the United States on the premise that we need to protect our health and the economy.
However, the government has not taken measures to protect health and the economy. We are a leader in the world in COVID-19 cases and as a result our economy is threatened. The truth is the government is trying to pretty much eliminate the asylum process, and that was created from the lessons we learned from World War II and the Holocaust.
What is an example of such a policy?
The government is now expelling children who come to our borders. It is not granting asylum to anyone, including children — some of whom are involved in human trafficking. As unaccompanied alien children we could have protected them. This speaks volumes about us. I think we must do better. Immigration is not only a national security issue but also a justice and humanitarian issue. Congress does not want to have these tough conversations. But as a Christian, I have to respond to them. These children were made by God, and I was called to care for them.
What can others do?
There are a lot of people right now who really are dependent on the mercy of the help we can give them. Fellowship Southwest is supporting pastors who are working along the border. We have people who are sheltering migrants, who are feeding them, providing them with the transportation to their immigration court hearings. As Christians we can help these pastors and these communities by contributing to their continued work of feeding and housing immigrants. Giving money is life.
We also need to pray. These pastors need our prayers because COVID-19 is out there, and they go out every day and they are exposing themselves to do the work God has called them to do. And we need to push Congress on comprehensive immigration reform. We need to push our representatives and our senators. Let them know we are not going to support them unless they fight for better policies.
Do you ever feel hopeless about these state of affairs?
There are times when I feel hopeless. But then I start thinking about the opportunities that we have, instead. I have seen how God works even in the midst of all of this. Even when there is lack of money and there are no ways for people to protect themselves, I see God working, and that’s what gives me hope.
Comprehensive immigration reform takes time. It’s a process. I see myself as just a part of that process. Hopelessness comes when you think you are the only one taking action. I have a lot of hope that we are going to see those changes sooner rather than later.