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Chicago priest on front line of Trump immigration policy battle

Jose Landaverde is pastor of Faith, Life, and Hope Mission. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times.

Born in El Salvador, the Central American country today known as murder capital of the world, the Rev. Jose Landaverde was smuggled out.

He’d been just a teenager when he joined rebels fighting oppression by El Salvador’s brutal military regime during the civil war of 1980 to 1992, and he became one of the hunted.

He was just shy of 20 when he escaped — through Guatemala and Mexico, arriving in the United States as a political refugee in the late 1980s.

Landaverde, 49, has always looked back.

“My father and mother were farmers,” he says. “We were very poor. At that time, we didn’t have political freedom. We didn’t have an opportunity to go to school. School was totally prohibited. Even to be religious in El Salvador was prohibited.”

After leaving, he never saw his parents again.

The outspoken priest who heads the Faith, Life and Hope Mission in Back of the Yards has long been on the front lines in the battle for immigration reform. He says his story mirrors that of many immigrants.

“We know what Donald Trump wants,” Landaverde says. “And we know what we want.”

The election of the billionaire reality TV star, whose hard-line stance on immigration has sparked anxiety in the communities Landaverde has championed for over 30 years, has the activist priest gearing for battle.

“In the last year, Donald Trump brought a lot of hate against immigrants and Latinos around the country,” he says.

“Since the election, I’ve seen people in the Latino community very scared, very sad, telling me, ‘They’re going to deport me. I’m going to be separated from my family.’

“I am telling them, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Listen to the gospel last Sunday in St. Luke. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Go and fight for whatever you believe. And stay calm.”

Landaverde has lived by those words. He settled here in the late 1980s with help from Catholic nuns who took in Central American refugees. He joined Chicago’s activist community soon after, employed as an organizer with such groups as 8th Day Center for Justice, Life Directions and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

In 2001, he founded the Latino Union of Chicago to take on agency abuse of day laborers, working for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network until 2005, when he became pastor of Little Village’s Amor de Dios Church.

There, he helped galvanize the community against “polimigra” — efforts to question and turn over undocumented immigrants.

“At that time, every person they stopped who were not documented, Chicago police were sending to Homeland Security,” Landaverde says. “We started fighting for this to be declared a ‘sanctuary’ community to reunite families.”

Chicago’s sanctuary city ordinance, protecting undocumented immigrants from police harassment, was passed in 2006. Landaverde was ordained that year by the Anglican Province of America, then helped mobilize his community for an immigration reform march that drew 100,000 people in March 2006, sparking similar marches nationwide.

Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities like Chicago and said he wants to rescind President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order, allowing an estimated 725,000 young people who are in the United States illegally through no fault of their own to remain in the country.

His election has caused a spike in calls to mental-health hotlines across Illinois and nationwide, health officials say.

Landaverde, as well-known for his tactics on immigration as the Rev. Michael Pfleger is for his against violence, is defiant.

“It is totally impossible that Donald Trump will come to our beautiful city of Chicago and take away our rights,” he says. “We are talking about a safe place for those who are suffering. Many of us, we will die to keep the city as it is.”

Landaverde has been prepared to die before. Founding the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Little Village in 2007, he made headlines with his hunger strikes after Chicago hospitals refused to put undocumented immigrants on transplant waiting lists. A state law was passed in 2014 requiring they do so.

He has walked across the country to draw attention to his cause. On Nov. 28, he leads a Chicago contingent joining advocates from cities nationwide on a cross-country “Walk for Peace, Love and Justice,” to end in Washington, D.C., with demonstrations during the Jan. 20 inauguration.

He and advocates also are requesting from the Obama administration a presidential pardon halting all deportations before he leaves office.

“I am very positive about the future,” Landaverde says. “Donald Trump is confusing our society about how we are to live in our country. We are organizing people to know their rights, to not be afraid and to use love against hate.”