Rolando Rodriguez left Reynosa, Mexico, and came to the U.S. at age 15. Like any normal teenager, he didn’t want to leave his friends and haunts, even for just a short visit to see his father and several siblings in Dallas.
What happened after he came here during Christmas 1980 is a journey lawmakers debating immigration policies in Washington may want to consider. “My story represents a lot of people like me,” Rodriguez told me last week from his suburban Dallas church.
Now a Baptist minister, Rodriguez is an American citizen with a passion for planting churches, wearing flag ties on July Fourth, and leading a congregation whose Latino members last week were working on volunteer projects in suburban Dallas.
The middle-aged father had no idea what direction his life would take when he, his mother and remaining siblings came to see the rest of their family that Christmas. They weren’t going back, he found out. They would stay as a family; his father had landed a job.
For the next six months, Rolando, an adventurous teenager back home, stayed inside their Dallas home. He arrived with a legal visa, but it expired after several weeks. (Many immigrants end up illegal that way.)
He also rarely left home because he did not fit into a culture where everyone his age was in school. And he couldn’t start school yet because he spoke little English. “The culture and the language were hard barriers,” he explained as we sat in his office, a picture of legendary Baptist pastor W.A. Criswell hanging on one wall.
A teenager who loved his neighborhood and pals back home was living like he was under house arrest. Things got better when he started attending Dallas’ Sunset High School. The school had no bilingual education, so he had to learn English and learn it fast. Once he graduated, he went straight to work at a factory.
When he hit his early 20s, Rodriguez married a second-generation immigrant, began raising a family and experienced his faith being born anew. Soon, his pastor talked to him about the ministry.
This son of a working-class immigrant family found himself in theology school in San Antonio. He started working in small Baptist congregations in Dallas. Now he directs Hispanic ministry for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He also pastors the Latino congregation at High Pointe Baptist Church, which hosts services weekly for Anglo, black and Latino Christians.
Churches, especially Latino evangelical ones, play a big role in helping immigrants make a transition. As Rodriguez told me, they often have multiple generations in one congregation, where they learn from each other. Churches also help immigrant members learn social mores, including how to integrate through schools.
“My church sent me back to school,” he said. “It opened up the door to education and scholarships.” Now he is working on his doctorate.
None of this would have happened, he emphasized, if he had not been given an opportunity in this country. Specifically, the 1986 immigration bill allowed Rodriguez and immigrants like him to start the process of becoming legal residents and eventually citizens. “I am here today because of that bill,” he declared. “I am grateful for that opportunity.”
His is a story of assimilation, of joining a new culture and becoming a productive member of an adopted home country. “I have learned to accept and merge,” he said.
Finding your way in a new country is not easy. But Rodriguez’s journey shows it can be done. He proves that illegal immigrants can come out of their houses, learn English, get an education, follow their passions and put back into the lives of their fellow Americans.
As lawmakers in Washington, as well as the rest of us, listen to the immigration debate unfold, we may want to remember people like Rolando Rodriguez. Stories like his move us beyond the labels and hyperbole that often shape heated immigration discussions.
Like many illegal immigrants, Rodriguez overstayed his visa. But he became a responsible citizen who cares deeply about his adopted country.
Isn’t that what we want?