Editorial: Story of Brandon priest belies demonization of unauthorized immigrants

The Rev. Felipe Gonzalez says mass 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.[ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times]
The Rev. Felipe Gonzalez says mass 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.[ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published February 16 2018

That a Hillsborough County man brought to this country illegally as a child has dedicated his life to helping others serves as a reminder of the urgent need to work toward comprehensive immigration reform in the long run, and in the short run, to renew the program that lets so-called "Dreamers" remain in the United States.

Amid the ongoing national rift over immigration policy, individuals are held up every week as examples of why we should or shouldn’t move to deport some or all of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country without authorization.

The story of the Rev. Felipe González, told by Waveney Ann Moore of the Tampa Bay Times, certainly deserves a place in the debate. Gonzalez first was brought here by his parents from Colombia at age 11. They were denied political asylum but eventually arranged for him to remain as a "Dreamer" under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

He graduated from Gaither High School in Tampa and from a Catholic seminary in Miami before entering the priesthood in St. Petersburg to begin a life that is the very definition of selfless service to his community. He now is a parish priest in Brandon. His adopted country stands to benefit from the choices Felipe González has made.

At his ordination, diocesan Bishop Robert N. Lynch, now retired, decried the nation’s "draconian" immigration laws and assured González that, while his mother and father could not attend, "We are your parents today."

President Trump, on the other hand, has announced he’ll end the executive order establishing the DACA program March 5, leaving to Congress whether to pass legislation that keeps it in place. President Obama had issued the order after Congress failed to act.

But now the program and its estimated 800,000 beneficiaries are tied up in the Washington immigration debate of the day. Trump is tying it to the real or virtual border wall that helped him win election, saying in a tweet, "Any deal on DACA that does not include STRONG border security and the desperately needed WALL is a total waste of time."

As has been the case for decades, this latest Washington debate is merely a debate around the edges, failing to tackle the central question of how the nation will deal with its millions of unauthorized immigrants — mass deportation on one end of the argument, a path to citizenship on the other.

Meantime, the people whose lives hang in the balance cling to lifelines fast disappearing under the Trump administration.

One is DACA. The other is the humanitarian stay option granted on a case-by-case basis that’s at the heart of another story this month out of East Hillsborough, showcasing changes in Trump administration policy that run counter to America’s own interests.

Luis Blanco, a construction worker and father of six who has lived 20 years in Plant City, had been allowed to remain in the United States under a humanitarian stay that he had to renew each year. Not any more. Blanco was taken away and sent to Miami for deportation, leaving a family that’s here legally without its sole financial supporter.

Many hardliners see unauthorized immigrants only as criminals, blasting them as devious infiltrators and manipulators.

Feeding this narrative is this month’s story of a twice-deported Guatemalan man accused of DUI in the deaths of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson and his Uber driver. President Trump tweeted out this tragedy to argue for his policies. He also blasted infiltration by "thousands and thousands" of largely Salvadoran MS-13 gang members.

These are indeed matters of grave concern, where deportation must always remain an option. But their place in the debate over immigration policy is exaggerated. Research shows again and again that unauthorized immigrants commit crimes at no greater rate than the population as a whole.

How refreshing it would be instead to see a tweet from Trump about people like Felipe González — people whose contributions have earned them an answer once and for all about where they stand in a country that is richer for their presence.