More than 11 million undocumented immigrants might have a chance of coming out of hiding and having legal residency in the United States if Congress can successfully pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the coming months. It is in this crucial time where the potential future of millions of immigrants are on the line that The Christian Post spoke to Rolando Rodriguez, a former undocumented immigrant who now leads the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), about how his life changed after Congress passed an immigration reform law over 20 years ago.
Rodriguez was one of nearly 3 million to benefit from the 1986 immigration reform act. His journey from being an undocumented immigrant to overseeing more than 1,000 Hispanic Baptist congregations for the BGCT was a feat of hardships and one made possible due to Washington lawmakers.
"The Immigration Reform gave me the opportunity to realize the American Dream without the fear of being deported or that the door of opportunity would close on me because of my legal status," said Rodriguez.
In retrospect, he says his story would have been much different had he stayed in Mexico during Christmas when he was 15-years-old.
"When we left Mexico, my siblings and I were told that we were just going to the U.S. for Christmas break and that we would be returning to Mexico afterward," said Rodriguez. "It was not until the Christmas break was over that my father announced to us that we would not be returning to our home country. It was then that it hit me that I would never see my friends and extended family again," he added.
Upon arriving in Dallas, Texas, his reality became the common story told among many Hispanic families in search of improving their life, but not without starting at the bottom. Their struggle after leaving Mexico happened when his father found a job as a diesel mechanic in Dallas, which provided financial stability for the family.
"My parents, seven siblings and I lived in a one-bedroom duplex. My three school-aged siblings and I entered the Dallas Public Schools with the challenge of the language barrier," said Rodriguez. He also added that, "My older siblings and father found jobs and struggled with transporting me and my younger siblings to school and the older members of the family to work, with only one small pick-up truck."
Rodriguez' family entered the U.S. legally but within weeks, his immigration status changed.
"I entered with a Visa, which was not easily obtained, however once we were granted the Visa that is when the hardship began," Rodriguez said.
He says the high cost and duration of the process to obtain legal documents and the chance of no approved guarantee triggered his family to remain in the U.S. after their temporary Visa expired. However, he quickly realized the idea to stay in the U.S. would cost him and his family's peace of mind.
"At the time I left Mexico, I missed my freedom!" exclaimed Rodriguez. "When my Visa expired I was not able to freely leave my home due to the fear of being detained for my status," he added.
As an undocumented student, his fears ranged from being deported and leaving his family behind to not being able to communicate with non-Spanish speakers.
"I had fears of uncertainty: are we going to find a job, will we be able to go to school tomorrow, will I ever see my friends from Mexico again, will I be able to play soccer in high school, which was my passion," he recalled.
Eventually, he began being less frightened and more assimilated. Much to his surprise, he encountered different cultures and began embracing American culture through the education process.
"School helped introduce me to the American way, to understand its history and learn the language," said Rodriguez.
But it wasn't until 1986 that Rodriguez began to reap the rewards of being an acknowledged individual instead of just an illegal immigrant. He married a second-generation immigrant and in 1988 they initiated their ministry together. Soon after, he enrolled at the Hispanic Baptist Theological Seminary (HBTS), currently known as Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas.
"After graduating from the HBTS in 1993 the Lord opened doors for me to obtain a Master of Arts Christian Education at Dallas Baptist University," said Rodriguez. "Upon graduating in 2005, yet another door opened for me to pursue a Doctor of Ministry in Leadership through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary."
Now as the head of the Hispanic Ministry for BGCT, he has developed a leadership training school and has co-authored a Spanish-language book based on Psalm 23, Nada Me Faltara.
Throughout his success, Rodriguez has remained humble and recognizes his accomplishments are due to not only the U.S. government extending a helping hand but primarily because of God.
"The breaking point in my life was when I came to know Christ as my Lord and Savior. Most of us did not come to this country to get educated. We came to work, but education will not only open doors for better
paying jobs but will also work for the benefit of our country," said Rodriguez.
When CP asked him what he would tell someone if they were to say Hispanic immigrants just want a free ride, he responded, "I want for them to know my story, my story represents many people who came to this country legally or not, and who make a commitment to their families and to this country."
Currently, Rodriguez enjoys traveling over half of the U.S. with his family and loves that his adopted country has given him many opportunities. But despite his success, not all his dreams have been accomplished, yet.
"I have to say that our visit to Washington D.C. is on the top two of our list because of the history and what it represents. However, my dream is to one day visit the White House," he said.