Editor's note: The names of the undocumented immigrants have been withheld for their safety. It is the Indy's policy to disclose the names of undocumented immigrants only when they have been formally charged with a crime, have pleaded guilty or have been convicted.
Updated on March 7: Elizabeth Simpson, attorney for the congregants, told the Indy that while the individuals are charged with being undocumented, the charges have not yet been sustained in immigration court.
It was Easter weekend, April 2010. More than 50 Latino men, women, boys and girls, traveling in a caravan of three church vans and six cars, wound their way through Louisiana along Interstate 10, just after midnight.
For the Raleigh-based Buen Pastor Church congregation, this route was not unfamiliar. Church members—most of them undocumented immigrants—were returning home after a weeklong jubilation in Houston, Texas, for Santa Cena—the "holy meal" celebrating the Last Supper.
Outside Lake Charles, the flashing lights of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) cars appeared in the vans' rear-view mirrors. Agents pulled the vans over, although, congregation members say, they were driving under the required speed limit.
What happened next continues to haunt the congregation: Agents interrogated them from midnight until dawn, allegedly calling them names and humiliating them.
Earlier this week, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing Buen Pastor, and the congregation sued the U.S. government in federal court. The suit was filed with the Eastern District of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh. They are requesting the release of agency records from CBP, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in hopes of reviewing documents that detail the events of that night. (The groups originally filed a Freedom of Information Act request, but received no response.)
Press officers with CBP and CIS did not return repeated calls and e-mails from the Indy seeking comment.
Trailing the vans, Buen Pastor's minister was driving a car with his wife and five children asleep in the back. The minister says he saw agents pull over the church vans, which carried 24 adults and 18 children. He continued driving and watched in his rearview mirror as the men he calls brothers were handcuffed and patted down. He acknowledges that he had only one thought, and that was to protect his family.
"The agents didn't stop our cars," he told the Indy through a translator. "I know God was watching over us that night, because He allowed us to get by unnoticed."
The drivers of the six cars, including the pastor, traveled for 20 miles before stopping at a gas station. Inside, they clung to one another, sobbing, until they realized they were drawing attention to themselves. They got back in their cars and left Louisiana.
For their fellow church members who had been detained, the ordeal continued. According to congregants' legal testimonies gathered by the coalition, agents banged against the side of the vans and shouted at the passengers. Some of the agents reportedly handcuffed the men and placed them in squad cars. Other agents slid into the drivers' seats of the church vans—while the children sobbed and the women tried to calm them—and drove them to the CBP Port of Entry headquarters in Lake Charles.
Once at CBP headquarters, men, still handcuffed, were placed in jail cells, while the women and children huddled against the office walls.
When some began praying and softly singing hymns, an agent, according to the testimony, laughed and told them, "Let's see if your God will save you from this."
Similar to some Mennonites and the Amish, the congregation's women do not wear pants and always wear colorful head coverings that are netted and sometimes beaded. Two agents reportedly told the women they "looked stupid," and another asked, "Do you wear those scarves so you don't have to brush your hair?"
In the office, the agents interviewed each family individually, and according to the congregants, denied their repeated requests to call a lawyer.
The agents completed paperwork and told the parishioners to sign their names on forms written in English. When the men and women hesitated—not knowing what they were signing—the agents reportedly told them, in a mix of Spanish and English, that if they did not sign the forms, they would be sent to separate jails, and the children would be sent to orphanages and become property of the United States.
Under duress, the adults signed the papers, and around 6 a.m., were allowed to leave—but only after an agent reportedly asked the group to stand together so he could take a photo with his personal camera to show his wife. According to the congregants' testimony, he told them that they were his office's "biggest catch yet."
The church vans pulled out of Lake Charles, with six empty seats. A half-dozen single men were detained by the CBP and deported back to Mexico within weeks.
"I feel responsible," said Buen Pastor's minister, as he held his sleeping toddler in one arm and a large Bible in a tan tooled-leather cover in the other. "I am their leader and I took them to the celebration. It weighs on me."
He came to North Carolina 11 years ago, and has served his Raleigh congregation of about 80 people for the past decade. A quiet man, he said he found his calling as a New Evangelical minister in 1994, while living in Mexico.
The congregation was aware that there could be risks in taking the trip, but, the minister said, they were not afraid because most of them had traveled to Santa Cena many times before.
The coalition took the church's case for free last October. If the church's requests are not answered, the coalition and the church plan to sue the federal government, says the coalition staff attorney, Elizabeth Simpson.
Simpson represents 22 of the church members in removal proceedings by the Immigration Court in Charlotte as a result of their arrests. The men and women could be deported by April.
The coalition is arguing that the CBP stop was based on racial profiling and violated the Fourth Amendment. The men and women facing removal have no criminal record, said Simpson.
"The agents' behavior during the arrest was pretty appalling," she added. "Taunting the group about whether "their God would save them. They were also joking about what a 'big commission' they would earn for catching so many 'illegals' at once."
Since that night, the minister says members of Buen Pastor have felt afraid. "We see police officers not as someone that could help us but harm us," he said. "Before this fear we would go out into the streets, to the park or lake, but now when we leave our house we don't know if we will come back."
The 18 children who were sleeping in the church vans that night and awakened to seeing their fathers handcuffed and driven away, have suffered most. (The children were released.) "Some of these children have a father or mother awaiting deportation," said the minister. "Others cry when their dad goes to work, or rush home from school worried he will not be there."