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  1. Florida Politics

The 'Dreamer' who grew up to be a priest: 'I pray and hope … we will get through this'

Father Felipe Gonzalez leads the Liturgy of the Eucharist during the family mass Sunday at the Chapel of the Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon. Gonzalez, 29, was born in Medellin, Colombia, and brought to the U.S. in 2000 by his parents. One of thousands of young people with DACA status, he is waiting to learn his fate. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Feb. 6, 2018

When the Rev. Felipe González was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle on May 21, 2016, his parents could not watch in person.

He was in St. Petersburg. They had to watch it on the Internet from the other side of the hemisphere, in Colombia.

"How we wish you could be here with us for this special moment and how we pray that our nation's draconian immigration laws would have made it possible for you to attend and rejoice with this church this morning," Bishop Robert N. Lynch, now retired, told the packed cathedral that day in Spanish, then English.

"You have given us a fine son and this morning we give your family a fine priest. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. González. And Felipe, we are your parents today."

RELATED: Trump open to path to citizenship for 'Dreamers'

Father Felipe, as he is now known, is parochial vicar of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon. He is also a Dreamer, one of an estimated 800,000 immigrants brought to this country as children and who lack legal status.

His parents cannot visit him and he cannot visit them. Their application for asylum was denied a decade ago.

Now 29, Father Felipe's future in this country — like all of his fellow Dreamers — is uncertain.

• • •

Felipe González was 11 when he first traveled to America with his mother in 2000. His father followed a year later. Life back then was tough in Medellin.

"I had an awareness that we were coming to stay with an aunt," he said, adding that he was unaware of his parents' long-term plans. "They saw an opportunity for me to have an opportunity here in the United States."

He has wanted to be a priest from the age of 5. After graduating from Gaither High School in Tampa at age 18, he began his studies at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami.

Their application for political asylum denied and facing deportation, Luis and Flor Maria González settled their son in at the college and voluntarily returned home to Colombia.

Their son received a bachelor of arts in philosophy. He went on to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach and earned a master's in divinity.

González explained that seminary officials "conditionally accepted" him for study in the hope that his immigration status would one day be resolved.

That day appeared to have arrived on June 15, 2012, when then-President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, protecting children brought here by their immigrant parents from deportation and giving them the right to work legally.

"When that was announced, I was very happy and I was jumping up and down ...," González said. "It was because of DACA that I was able to be ordained a priest and work in a parish." And thus live his dream.

His elation turned to distress last year, when President Donald Trump announced that his administration would end the DACA program this March.

"I was very sad," González said, "because it certainly creates a lot of anxiety in people like me."

• • •

Republicans and Democrats remain divided on an immigration deal as another government shutdown looms. The Trump administration has said it would support a path to citizenship for Dreamers, with conditions, including significantly reducing family sponsorship for immigrants. Democrats have rejected that.

Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, called Trump's proposed cuts to family immigration and the end of protections for unaccompanied children "deeply troubling."

"Family immigration is part of the bedrock of our country and of our Church," Vásquez, the bishop of Austin, said in a statement.

"In searching for a solution for Dreamers, we must not turn our backs on the vulnerable," he said. "We should not, for example, barter the well-being of unaccompanied children for the well-being of the Dreamers. We know them all to be children of God who need our compassion and mercy."

Bishop Gregory Parkes, who recently celebrated his first year as bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg overseeing Tampa Bay area-churches, said U.S. Catholic bishops would like "to see a clean immigration bill, as opposed to it being lumped into other things."

"Lumping it into another bill or issue" reduces DACA "to a bargaining chip," he said and is "a further dehumanizing" of the Dreamers.

"However, in the end, the important thing is that the issue gets addressed and that those with DACA status receive a permanent resolution which allows them to remain here as productive and valued members of society."

Parkes has reassured González of his support, just as Lynch once did.

"I've also met with other DACA recipients over the past several months in our diocese," Parkes said. "There is just a great fear of the unknown as to what is going to happen to them.

"I have tried to assure them of my support and that of my priests and the diocese and that the bishops are working to bring a permanent solution to this important issue."

He has also appealed to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

"I called Senator Rubio's office and left a message and sent an email expressing hope for a bipartisan effort. We've urged others to do the same," he said.

• • •

Not only has González spent most of his life in this country, but he has family here, as well. His sister, Patricia Millan, who lives in Lutz and is a U.S. citizen, carried his vestments when he was ordained in 2016 — an honor that would have gone to their parents.

González said his sister could sponsor him for legal residence, but the complexities of immigration law could turn that into a years-long process.

He said he feels American.

"I've lived most of my life here and I feel that I am more from here than from my own country, while not forgetting my own roots," he said. "Yes, I have my parents there, but I wouldn't have anything to go back to.

"I was trained here in the United States to be in a bilingual, multicultural context. In fact, I have assisted a lot of DACA families, spiritually and even emotionally as they go through these fears."

They feel a connection to him, said González, who has been open about his own immigration status.

"I pray and hope that something will come out for us to be okay. It does create a lot of anxiety in the community," he said. "I have this great faith that somehow we will be able to get through this."

Faith, and a sense of humor.

"I hear often sometimes that immigrants are taking away jobs from Americans," he said. "I can clearly provide assistance in the right direction for the priesthood. We need a lot of priests."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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