For the first time in U.S. history, attorneys for an illegal immigrant in Houston are appealing to federal religious freedom laws to annul his impending deportation.
Lawyers representing Juan Rodriguez filed a lawsuit Monday on the unprecedented grounds that Rodriguez’s deportation would violate his family’s religious beliefs, specifically a Seventh Day Adventist requirement that requires families to remain together. Rodriguez’s lawyers hope that their lawsuit will be upheld based on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.”
Rodriguez is represented by Raed González and receives legal counsel from three other members of the Hispanic Bar Association of Houston, including David Medina, a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Rodriguez’s lawsuit is a gamble, made in the face of a swiftly shrinking window of time. Immigration officials have allowed Rodriguez to stay in the U.S. long enough to watch his oldest daughter graduate from high school. If his case is refused after that, he will be deported to El Salvador June 29.
He originally fled to the U.S. illegally over 10 years ago to escape violence in El Salvador, but ICE officials allowed him to live and work in the the U.S. so long as Rodriguez checked in with them on a regular basis. Twenty-five check-ins later, authorities informed Rodriguez in February that he would be deported.
The next few days will tell whether a judge will hear Rodriguez’s case and temporarily halt his deportation, according to Rodriguez’s lawyers.
While Rodriguez’s wife and three daughters are U.S. citizens, they say that they will follow him to El Salvador if he is deported, which Rodriguez’s lawyers argue would be a “de-facto deportation” of U.S. citizens.
“If he goes, we go, and I’m willing to do that for my family,” Rodriguez’s daughter said.
El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with gang violence, extortion and arms and drug trafficking widespread throughout the country, according to the U.S. Department of State. González said he worries that the Rodriguez family’s status as Americans will make them targets in El Salvador because of the perception that people coming from America are financially well off.
Rodriguez’s lawsuit has only a slim chance of winning, according to Gerald Treece, legal analyst for KHOU 11.
“It sounds like a valid argument until you think about it,” said Treece. “Does it apply to everybody? Anybody’s religious group? It’s sort of a long shot, but it’s also the best shot they’ve got.”
Treece also said that if Rodriguez wins this case, it will “knock the door down” for others to use RFRA to annul deportations in the name of religious liberty.
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