This Kent pastor can't get back into the U.S. So now he evangelizes by Skype
When Pastor Carlos Galdamez and his wife, Reina Aquino Montejo, left their home in Washington to get a visa in Mexico this past January, they thought it was the last stop on their path to U.S. citizenship.
But Galdamez and Aquino, who led a congregation in Kent, were wrong. The paralegal the couple hired to help with their immigration paperwork failed to warn them about a major risk in crossing the border: They wouldn’t be allowed back.
For the last nine months, Galdamez and Aquino have been stranded in Mexico, a country they haven’t lived in for 18 years. Their congregation was stranded, too. But that hasn’t stopped the couple from evangelizing to their followers north of the border over Skype.
Up to 70 people can show up for Galdamez and Aquino’s weekly sermons, or messages, as they call them, at the home of Pastor Nathan Roberts and his wife, Marlene Roberts, near Sea-Tac airport. On Sundays, the Roberts set up chairs in front of a screen to host them in their living room.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s still the pastor of this church,” Pastor Roberts said.
Pastor Roberts met Galdamez and Aquino in 2013, when Galdamez was the Spanish-speaking pastor and Roberts was assistant pastor at Renaissance Apostolic Church in Renton. Marlene Roberts said both couples bonded instantly, and that Galdamez and Aquino had a unique ability to draw people in.
“Carlos and Sister Reina are like a magnet for God,” Marlene Roberts said. “Everybody just surrounds them because they're attracted to them and they don't even know why.”
Galdamez and Aquino first came to the U.S. from Mexico illegally 18 years ago. They came, Galdamez said through an interpreter, because they believed it was a calling from God to save souls. In the U.S., that’s what the couple set about doing: They built up a passionate congregation of church-goers south of Seattle.
But in 2016, Galdamez and Aquino decided it was time to get their citizenship in order. They were starting a new church with the Roberts, and they wanted to preach to prison inmates. To do that, they needed citizenship documents.
With the help of the Roberts and a paralegal, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved religious worker visas that Galdamez and Aquino thought would eventually lead to a green card. It took two years and $10,000, Marlene Roberts said.
Galdamez and Aquino’s paralegal said they would need final approval from a consulate in Mexico, the couple said. Galdamez said they were told the hardest part was over and all they had to do was pick up their papers.
The couple was not warned, however, that the consulate could and would bar them from entering the U.S. for a decade. They found out only after they reached Mexico that their visas were denied because they had crossed the border illegally 18 years prior.
KUOW reached out to Lynch Law Offices, the law firm that had employed the paralegal at the time. When asked if Galdamez and Aquino’s paralegal had warned them about the risk of crossing the border, attorney Joseph Lynch said: “To my knowledge no one ever discussed that.”
When it comes to immigration cases, bad or incomplete legal advice is not uncommon, said Natalie Hansen, a staff attorney at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
“When you're an immigration attorney, one of your biggest jobs is to make sure that when you send people outside of the country, you're making sure they're eligible, that you've got a strong application in place, and that the person understands the risk,” she said. “There's always a level of risk when you leave the country.”
It’s a common misconception, Hansen added, that there’s a path to citizenship if you’ve lived in the country for decades.
“There's just not a legal option for a lot of people, which is why we have the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States,” Hansen said. “I've met with hundreds of people, and a lot of times you're advising people they don't have any options. Families like this sometimes they think, ‘If I come clean and try to make it right, it's going to work out for the best.’ That's also not necessarily true.”
Opponents of immigration reform say this is the way it should work: That if you cross the border illegally, even decades ago, you ought to be kicked out.
Galdamez and Aquino’s followers spoke emotionally about the loss of their pastor to the American immigration system.
Congregant Magdalena Lopez-Muñoz told KUOW that Galdamez and Aquino helped her kick a reliance on sleeping pills due to chronic anxiety.
She said she believed that God worked through Galdamez and Aquino — that when Pastor Carlos Galdamez spoke in tongues, she felt a divine presence.
“God uses them a lot,” she said. “We need our pastors back.”
Pastor Carlos Galdamez does believe he and Aquino will return to the U.S.
“Creo que Dios va a hacer algo grande y va a ser un milagro,” he told KUOW, fittingly, over Skype.
He said he believes God is going to do something big, he said, and it’s going to be a miracle.
Judith Rios-Amador and Violeta Sialer provided translation services for this story.