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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

He helped deport thousands. Now he shelters immigrants in his church

Father Antonio Illas was federal immigration agent for 25 years before becoming a priest.
KUOW Photo/Andy Hurst
Father Antonio Illas was federal immigration agent for 25 years before becoming a priest.

Father Antonio Illas was a federal immigration agent for 25 years before he turned his life to God.

He changed his mind during a raid of a small business suspected of hiring undocumented workers.

“We came across a young lady — a Colombian national who had been in the U.S. for several years,” he said.

“She was going to college, with no criminal background. She was attempting to live the American dream. If you could just see her eyes — you could see the intense emotion. She’s getting deported. It’s like a bomb had gone off and her life and her dreams are destroyed. She said, ‘Help me, can you help me?’ She was asking for help. And there’s nothing you can do, as an agent to change that course of action.”

He was an agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, beginning in the 1980s in New York City.

“My job was to remove criminal aliens. I loved it. It was a passion. It was an energy I felt being an agent. The agency existed to safeguard the borders and to safeguard the legal immigration process. I had a blast doing my job and enforcing the immigration laws.”

Now, as a priest, he sees parishioners who are afraid.

“When a political campaign started by calling for border wall, and saying Mexico was sending criminals and rapists across the border — that narrative is wrong, and it’s getting worse. When I see parishioners who are afraid, and terrorized by the narrative of the state, you know that things are wrong and dangerous.”

He knows the passion of removing criminal aliens.

“Every country has a responsibility to control its borders. But a country needs to be fair to all groups in the immigration process. I can understand when someone is for immigration enforcement - removing criminal aliens. I was there once, I know that passion. I have lived it. But we need to be just, and we need to be fair with everyone. And that is the deficiency of the system.”

He still carries his immigration badge in his coat pocket.

“There is a sense of loyalty, and sense of belonging. This badge represents that. It was part of me for so many years. And that’s why I still carry it. But it’s a reminder that I can be a lot more effective today as a priest than I was for 25 years as an agent.

“If justice is calling and knocking at your heart — there is no tolerance for injustice.”

This story originally aired March 21, 2017.

Year started with KUOW: 2006
Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012