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Keeler: Enrique Morones -- Fearless immigration advocate and committed Christian

Enrique Morones holds a candle and a cross

Enrique Morones holds a candle and a cross in front of U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters during a candlelight vigil and protest in San Diego. Credit: AP, 2005

For some, the act of leaving water in the desert -- for immigrants entering the United States without papers -- seems like a case of aiding and abetting a crime.

For Enrique Morones, the founder of Border Angels, a San Diego immigrant advocacy group, their crime is at the level of jaywalking. Many, including me, agree. And giving them water is simply obeying a stark command.

In Matthew 25, Jesus lays out the criteria for final judgment: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

In Matthew, those who have lived up to that will claim their inheritance in the kingdom. Those who don't -- well, they end up eternally unhappy.

Faced with a choice between obeying Matthew 25 and angering apoplectic anti-immigration activists, Morones is clear which choice is right. So he delights in debating the issue and proclaiming in venue after venue the message that no human being is illegal -- certainly not people driven by need to cross a desert by night, risking and often losing their lives to embrace the promise of America.

Tonight, Morones brings that message to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, in Manhasset.

His narrative -- now in a book, "The Power of One: The Story of the Border Angels" -- begins, unlike the one in the desert, with a comfortable, simple immigration to the United States. His father had an offer to work in Mexico's fish and game department's outpost in San Diego, the base for large tuna fleets that fished in Mexican waters. So he and his wife got visas -- now, for most Mexicans, almost impossible to get -- and brought their two children with them. In America, three more were born, including Enrique.

He grew up in a strong, united Mexican family, a trait typical of the culture. "It's one of the great things the Mexicans bring to this country," Morones said in an interview.

He went to Catholic schools all the way through, including the University of San Diego. With an undergraduate degree in international marketing and a master's in executive leadership, he had a good career as a hotel chain executive and as a vice president of the San Diego Padres. He pioneered marketing the game to Latinos and was a moving force behind La Primera Serie, the first series that major-league teams played in Mexico, in 1996.

But it didn't take a lot to move him from marketing executive to immigration activist. A colleague at work led him to crude encampments of immigrant day laborers in the canyons of Carlsbad. In 1986, he founded a group that came to be known as Border Angels (borderangels.org). He and hundreds of volunteers go out by day to the desert areas of the Imperial Valley and the mountains around San Diego County, leaving behind water to help keep people alive in the searing heat of summer and blankets to ease the cold of winter. They don't usually see the immigrants they help, who travel by night. But Morones knows what they need.

"Most of these people, an overwhelming majority -- just like yesteryear -- are people looking for opportunity."

His parents and many earlier immigrants didn't face legal barriers like today's. But his opponents don't accept that difference. For them, it's all about illegality. "On their websites, they call me public enemy number one," he said. They also twist his name and call him a moron.

He's anything but. He's a fearless advocate, debating his detractors to a flustered standstill, and a committed Christian, living the Gospel. He's well worth hearing.

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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