The New York Times | ‘I Know I Will Be Criticized’: The Latino Evangelical Who Advises Trump on Immigration

SACRAMENTO — The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez had been summoned to the White House for an urgent meeting, and with so much at stake, he decided that he needed a blessing.

He looked out at the Latino families jammed into his evangelical church in Sacramento on a recent Sunday and called on Stephania Herrera, a youth pastor who had come to the United States illegally when she was 10 years old. Ms. Herrera has been allowed to remain in the country under a program known as DACA. But with that program coming to an end, Mr. Rodriguez was to meet with White House aides to discuss how to save people like Ms. Herrera, known as Dreamers, from deportation.

“Father,” Ms. Herrera said in Spanish, closing her eyes, gripping the microphone with her left hand and holding her pastor’s hand high with her right, “You have placed him in this place, at this time, in this hour, with a great purpose, and we unite as one believing in your purpose. We ask that you send him covered in favor — send him in power — send him with authority.”

The meeting in Washington would not end in success. At President Trump’s urging, Mr. Rodriguez agreed to support a deal that would allow the Dreamers to stay, in exchange for Congress authorizing funding for a border wall, cutting legal immigration and limiting family reunification. But the proposal went nowhere in Congress. And more than a month later, the long-term prospects for roughly 700,000 Dreamers remain in limbo.

Mr. Rodriguez represents a singular voice in the immigration debate — the rare Latino in the small clique of evangelicals who serve as informal advisers to President Trump. At the president’s inauguration last year, Mr. Rodriguez was one of only six members of the clergy invited to give a prayer at the ceremony. He has been to the White House or taken part in conference calls so many times since then that he has lost count. But the impasse over the Dreamers has tested whether he has any real influence.


He thinks of himself as a modern-day Joseph in Pharaoh’s court, placed there to save his people and advance the common good.

“If I’m not there, then what fills that vacuum?” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I know I will be criticized — I get that — but I have to stand up. It’s part of the calling.”

Others question why he is advising a president who has characterized Mexicans as rapists and murderers, who ended the DACA program and who wants to curb all immigration, both illegal and legal.

Gaby Pacheco, a Hispanic evangelical and one of the original organizers of the Dreamers movement, said she spent years traveling around the country “building bridges” with Republicans and conservative evangelicals, trying to explain the Dreamers’ predicament to them. She said that she and two fellow Dreamers even visited Mr. Trump at Trump Tower in New York City in 2013, shared their stories with him, and were excited when he told them, “You’ve convinced me.” Mr. Trump took them downstairs afterward and bought them Trump-brand ties, an Ivanka Trump watch and copies of his books.

She has since soured on Mr. Trump, though, and on Mr. Rodriguez. She said that the pastor had “crossed a boundary” by serving on Mr. Trump’s advisory board and participating in his inauguration.

“To some extent, I feel like Sam gives Trump cover and is emboldening Trump, because he stands by him,” said Ms. Pacheco, 33, who lives in Miami and now has a green card. “Just because I’m willing to have conversations and try to change his views on immigrants doesn’t mean I would serve on his advisory board,” she said. “That’s legitimizing him.”

Mr. Rodriguez represents a growing segment of the evangelical movement, and one that is often overlooked in all the attention paid to the white evangelicals serving as Mr. Trump’s cheerleaders. One in four evangelicals in the United States is now an immigrant or the child of one. In the younger generation of evangelicals, there are now more Hispanic people than non-Hispanic whites.

On litmus-test social issues like abortion and homosexuality, many Hispanic evangelicals hold conservative views, just as most other evangelicals do.

Mr. Rodriguez argues that immigrants and their descendants are the future of the evangelical movement, and they could be the future of the Republican Party, too, if only it avoids falling into the trap of alienating immigrants and their supporters.

“President Trump got elected on a commitment of protecting America and building a wall,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I believe in border security, too. I just want him to build a bridge simultaneously. The immigrant community is America’s greatest blessing in the 21st century. And I want everyone from the White House to all the branches of government to affirm it.”

In the early days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Rodriguez felt he had some influence.

A month after the election, Mr. Rodriguez brokered a conference call among 30 Hispanic church leaders and the Trump transition team that produced a public promise from Mr. Trump that the Dreamers would be protected and families would not be torn apart. Mr. Rodriguez was convinced that his entreaties to the president on immigration had gotten through, based on Mr. Trump’s assertion that, “as a father and a grandfather,” he had sympathy for the Dreamers.

After the inauguration, at a celebratory dinner in the White House for the president’s evangelical supporters, Mr. Rodriguez and his mentor, the Rev. James Robison, shook Mr. Trump’s hand and gave him a written proposalfor how to save the Dreamers and their families. They also laid out how to sell the idea to Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant political base. Mr. Trump handed it to one of the Secret Service agents in his security detail, and told the pastors he was eager to read it.

But in the months that followed, Mr. Rodriguez watched as federal immigration agents stepped up deportations across the country — not just of criminals, but of “law-abiding, God-fearing, hard-working people,” he said. Parents were being separated from their children, he said, which was scaring people from going out. The seats at Sunday services were so empty one weekend, he said, that “we thought the Rapture took place.”

In September, Mr. Trump rescinded the DACA program. Mr. Rodriguez swung into high gear, mobilizing Hispanic pastors to visit their legislators at the Capitol. He appeared at a news conference with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, to push a bipartisan compromise.

His position, he said in an interview, was basically this: “Give the man his wall. Whatever. Give him the wall, and let’s just save these young people.”

Mr. Rodriguez, 48, was raised in the Rust Belt city of Bethlehem, Pa., where Poles, Slavs, Ukrainians and Italians were the predominant ethnic communities. His family came from Puerto Rico. Though he was part of the first generation born in the mainland United States, he did not speak English until he went to kindergarten. His father worked on a Mack truck assembly line for 30 years.

After college, Mr. Rodriguez stayed at first near his hometown. As he left for work on the first day of a new teaching job, he discovered that his house had been pelted with eggs, his car had been scratched and someone had written on his front steps, “Go home.”

“My wife joined me at the door, and she said, ‘What do we do?’ ” Mr. Rodriguez recalled. “I said, ‘Now we’re really not moving.’ ” They remained in that house for five years, until they could afford a bigger one, he said.

Mr. Rodriguez, who started preaching at 16, has the charisma of a stage magician and the backstage work ethic to match. He is perpetually in motion, flying around the world to preaching engagements. On a recent Sunday, he bounded across the stage of his church, the New Season Christian Worship Center, acting out multiple roles in the biblical story of Joshua.

When Mr. Trump invited him to pray at the inauguration, Mr. Rodriguez said, he asked his congregation to raise their hands if anyone objected. If even one hand went up, he said, he would not go. None did.

Even so, Hiram Reyes, a Dreamer in the congregation, said she was confused and angry when she saw her pastor at the White House.

“Seeing someone representing us, next to someone who wants to destroy us,” said Ms. Reyes, a college-bound high school senior. “At the same time, it is reassuring knowing we do have a voice there. It gives us hope that at some point there will be a resolution.”

Worshipers during a bilingual service at Mr. Rodriguez’s church in Sacramento, New Season Christian Worship Center. CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times

Mr. Rodriguez leads a network of 40,000 congregations, now known as the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He inherited the leadership from the preacher Jesse Miranda, and renamed the organization to evoke the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of his hero, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaders of some other large Hispanic evangelical groups have mostly kept their distance from Mr. Trump, and Mr. Rodriguez said he was initially no fan either. During the Republican primary campaign he served first on Jeb Bush’s advisory team, then Marco Rubio’s, then Ted Cruz’s, and only came around to Mr. Trump when he won the nomination.

Like many evangelicals, Mr. Rodriguez has been thrilled at some of Mr. Trump’s moves and statements concerning abortion, religious liberty and relocating the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

But he said his last trip to the White House was discouraging. John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, and Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security, tried to persuade Mr. Rodriguez and a small group of Hispanic business and civic leaders to support their proposal to link help for Dreamers with support for a border wall and limits on allowing immigration to reunite families. Mr. Rodriguez agreed to support the deal, but said he did not like it much.

Many immigration advocates said afterward that the White House had sabotaged the chances for a deal by holding the Dreamers hostage to Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. But Mr. Rodriguez refused to blame Mr. Trump.

He said Republicans and Democrats, the White House and Congress were all at fault. He and his network are now planning a publicity campaign closer to the midterm elections to press members of Congress to act.

Meanwhile, the Dreamers in his church are still living in fear.

“Families keep on getting destroyed and separated, and there’s still no clarity, no solution,” Ms. Herrera, who works with autistic children, said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s very frustrating.”

She blames “politics” in general — both political parties and Mr. Trump alike — for the impasse. “If he wanted to, he could make something happen,” she said. “It seems like they’re just playing a political game with the Dreamers.

“I still believe that Pastor Sam is there for a reason, and has the type of influence he has for a reason,” Ms. Herrera added. “No matter what, you can’t lose faith. That’s what holds us together.”

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