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It's hard to imagine a preacher more closely identified with the anti-immigration movement than Pastor Wiley Drake. He's good friends with Aliso Viejo resident and congressional candidate Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project; Drake's Buena Park church has donated blankets and food to support the border-watching activities of Gilchrist's grassroots anti-immigration group. And Drake routinely uses his right-wing radio program, TheWiley Drake Show (tune into crusaderadio.com), to agitate against illegal immigrants and support the efforts of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) to erect a 2,000-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
So it may surprise Drake's hard-line pals in the anti-immigration movement that he has repeatedly provided aid and comfort to illegal immigrants in his own congregation. The source for this news is none other than Drake himself. In a recent interview, he acknowledged that almost immediately after becoming pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park in 1987, he began helping illegal aliens in their struggle to become legal U.S. residents.
Drake refused to provide the full names or countries of origin for the illegal immigrants he's helped, but said the first person he assisted was an illegal immigrant from Central America who had already become a pastor affiliated with the church.
"I found we had been financially sponsoring a young man, and his wife and children, as a missionary to America," Drake said. "He was holding services for Spanish-speaking people in Buena Park. As I came to know him and his wife, he confided that he had become legal but his wife had not. They thought they had visas for both of them, but as it turned out, because of a language barrier, they didn't. Hers wasn't as long-lived as his, and all of a sudden they realized her visa was running out."
Drake said he had two choices: do nothing or help the couple become citizens. Drake urged the couple to go back to their home country and re-apply for new visas. He says he sent letters to congressmen and raised money—money he suspects was used to bribe a corrupt Central American immigration official.
"We basically took them from illegal to legal status," Drake says. "He continued to worship and serve as pastor at our church."
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It's one thing to talk a big game on illegal immigration. But what do you do when you find out a friend is in the U.S. illegally?
Drake clearly decided more than once that you choose personal loyalty over politics, that you become part of America's underground railroad—like the time Drake helped another illegal immigrant who was also a member of his congregation.
"We had a fellow who grew up in Fullerton and married one of our church girls," Drake said. "I got a call one night from his wife, and she said, 'Pastor, I am so upset. We were watching TV a few hours ago, and Julio went to get ice cream and never came back.'"
Julio had been pulled over on a minor traffic infraction by Fullerton police. "The police found out he was an illegal alien," Drake said. "He had never applied for citizenship. His mom and dad brought him here when he was a baby. It took us a week to find him. By that time, he was in a deportation camp in Arizona."
So Drake hired an immigration attorney and testified on Julio's behalf. The government's lawyer argued that Julio, who had been arrested for marijuana possession in high school, was a criminal and deserved to be deported. "But he had been working all this time, and got married and owned a home," Drake said. "The process probably took nine months or so. At the final hearing the government said it would drop the case against him."
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Over the years, Drake's work on behalf of the homeless has led to increasing conflicts with city officials in Buena Park, who threatened to close his church over complaints from neighbors. In 1997, the city took him to court and charged him with 11 criminal misdemeanors; six of those were later dropped. "I was convicted by a jury of my peers of four criminal misdemeanors—basically because I wouldn't throw the homeless out on the street," he said.
"We had a gentleman after 9/11 who came from Iran to our homeless shelter," Drake said. The man said he was a former rug salesman whose business had folded and who had lost his car in the process. "He didn't seem like the stereotypical homeless person, and I was suspicious. He gave us a passport that expired in 1995, and this was just a year ago. I made the decision that if he was not willing to correct his problem, we'd correct it for him."
Offered a chance to correct his immigration status, the man refused. So Drake called the FBI field office in Los Angeles. "They said, 'What do you want us to do about it?'" Drake recalled. "I said, 'Disneyland is five miles away and is on the top of the list of Al Qaeda targets and this guy is on an expired passport and is from Iran, and I'm nervous.' And the FBI said, 'You are borderline profiling people, and we don't profile people.'"