The Rev. Ramiro Peña has the feeling of walking a tightrope in his unusual double role: Pastor to Hispanic immigrants and adviser to a president who rode to office promising to wall out and deport people like them.
And if he forgets, there are people to remind him.
“It’s been quite painful,” said Peña, senior pastor of Christ the King Baptist Church and a member of President Donald Trump’s informal faith advisory committee. “I’ve had family members say painful things to me. … At a deep, personal level, people have said negative things, called me a ‘coconut’ — brown on the outside, white on the inside.”
But Peña said a face-to-face discussion with the president last weekend about immigration confirmed his sense that he made the right decision.
The occasion was a National Day of Prayer event for Texas hurricane victims, and the subject was Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era policy that for five years has shielded the children of unauthorized immigrants from deportation.
Trump was preparing to announce his decision Tuesday that he would rescind DACA. But Peña said he believes that he was part of a chorus of voices that influenced Trump to extend the phase-out of the program by six months.
“I have spoken to the staff and the president often about the DACA recipients,” Peña said. “I looked him in the eye, and I think his heart is in the right place.
“We were all very pleased to see six months. I’m convinced that he wants to see Congress codify the premise of DACA into law.”
President Barack Obama created DACA as an administrative program in 2012, allowing qualifying young adults to work or study for renewable two-year terms without fear of deportation. Legislation to provide that population permanent legal status, including the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, had repeatedly failed to gain bipartisan support.
Peña agrees with the Trump administration that Obama’s implementation of protections for young immigrants administratively was a presidential overreach and could not withstand a lawsuit threatened by state attorneys general led by Ken Paxton of Texas.
Peña said he will pressure Republicans to support legislation giving legal status to so-called “Dreamers.”
“I think there’s enough bipartisan support for it to pass,” he said. “Despite all the rhetoric about a do-nothing Congress, it’s an issue whose time has come. … There’s going to be an avalanche of pressure for Congress to act. I’m going to be part of that effort.”
Peña has been a pastor to Waco immigrants for three decades and has advocated for years for comprehensive immigration reform on economic and moral grounds.
“The issues are moral and spiritual issues before they become political ones,” he said. “I completely disagree with anyone demonizing someone who would risk their lives to cross the desert to do hard work. Regarding the Dreamers, they’re innocent children, and this is the only nation they’ve known.”
Peña has been involved for several years in local and national coalitions seeking to give immigrants a path to permanent status in the United States. He has introduced Congressman Bill Flores, a Bryan Republican, to some young Waco adults struggling with immigration issues.
A Baylor University regent from 2005 to 2014, Peña chaired a diversity task force for the university.
Still, Peña is also a social conservative opposed to abortion, and he said he could not abide Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s pro-choice stance. That weighed in his decision last year to accept an invitation to serve on the Trump campaign’s short-lived Hispanic Advisory Council.
He later joined the informal committee of evangelical advisers, and he says he has had “several” meetings with the president as part of that group.
Peña said the Trump he has met is willing to listen and accept counsel, regardless of his blustery image.
But the relationship got off to a rocky start last summer.
In late July 2016, Peña appeared on “The Jim Bakker Show” and officially endorsed Trump.
“If we don’t elect Donald Trump president, we’re going to end up electing someone who we absolutely know will put justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that will be pro-abortion,” he told the audience. “They will be pro-gay marriage. They will rob us of religious liberty, will continue to tear away at our right to bear arms, and that’s the kind of jurist that will be placed on the Supreme Court and on the federal bench.”
Trump had already gained notoriety for a 2015 campaign announcement speech in which he characterized border-crossers as rapists and drug dealers. In June 2016, he complained that a Hispanic federal district judge could not be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican” and “we’re building a wall between here and Mexico.”
Republicans who had hoped Trump would moderate his tone in an August 2016 speech on immigration were disappointed when he doubled down on anti-immigrant rhetoric, accusing immigrants of stealing jobs and bringing a crime wave.
Peña that night dashed off a letter to Republican and Trump officials denouncing the speech.
“I am so sorry but I believe Mr. Trump lost the election tonight,” Peña wrote in a letter acquired by Politico. “The ‘National Hispanic Advisory Council’ seems to be simply for optics, and I do not have the time or energy for a scam.”
After a few days praying about it, Peña reconsidered.
“I was very angry,” he said. “I communicated my feelings, and it was leaked. After much dialogue with people I trusted, in and out of the campaign, I felt like I had an obligation to stay, if I was still being offered a seat at the table. … I decided to stay the course. I’m glad I did. I’ve been able to give very meaningful input on a number of topics.”
Hope Mustakim, a leader of the Waco Immigrants Alliance, said she hopes Peña is successful in his diplomacy with Trump, but she is critical of his decision to campaign for the president. The alliance seeks to advocate for DACA recipients and other immigrants now facing stepped-up deportation actions.
“I appreciate right now what he’s doing with whatever influence he has,” Mustakim said. “But if we rewind and look at how we got to this point to begin with, I don’t understand how so many conservatives or evangelicals or pastors have elevated the abortion issue over the life issue that immigration is. … I don’t think it’s pro-life to deport people to a place that risks their lives.
“I’m sad that his congregants must feel so conflicted. How do I trust a pastor, trust in God, when everything around me says, ‘This is not going well?’ ”
Peña says he’s gotten used to such criticism.
“It goes with the territory,” he said. “Any time you provide leadership of any kind, there’s going to be someone who feels alienated. Knowing I was going to be criticized, my burden was to be faithful to my calling as I understand it.
“A basic fallacy of logic is to apply a characteristic of a part to the whole. There are things I support that Donald Trump has said, but it doesn’t follow that I support everything he has said. … Given today’s rhetoric and guilt by association, people who don’t know me have chunked rocks at me from the right and left. They don’t know my heart and my ministry.”
Peña’s congregation includes a mostly immigrant population of almost 100 that comes to his Spanish-language services, as well as a racially diverse crowd at his English services. Since 2008, his services have been broadcast around the country on various television platforms.
He said he still has the trust of immigrants in his congregation.
“I would say there are people in my church who are quite nervous about what is ultimately going to happen. But they’re grateful I’m fighting for them,” he said.
Peña himself is the great-grandson of Mexican immigrants who had converted to the Baptist faith. His parents grew up in Laredo and both went to Baptist colleges on scholarship. His father, a 1957 Baylor graduate, became a surgeon at Scott & White in Temple, the town where Peña was born.
Peña himself attended Baylor and was ordained as a Texas Baptist minister while still an undergraduate. He served as a youth pastor, then a Spanish-speaking mission pastor before receiving his Baylor diploma in 1988.
In 1990, he went to work for Baylor President Herb Reynolds and did graduate work at Baylor in philosophy in business. He and his wife, Orphalinda, started Christ the King Church in North Waco, with an emphasis on outreach to low-income and immigrant communities.
The couple co-pastors the church, located on Lake Shore Drive, and they continue that mission.
Peña has done a sermon series on the crisis of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border, calling on the church world to respond.
“I went down there and helped build a kitchen, and we helped get over 45,000 pounds of beans and rice there,” he said. “These kids need help. It’s not a political issue. It’s a humanitarian issue. Regardless of what your politics are, you need to respond.”
Mario Sandoval, pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church and president of the local Hispanic Ministers Alliance, said he respects Peña’s choices for political engagement. Sandoval said Peña sought his counsel before taking the role in the Trump campaign.
“He’s got a servant heart and he cares about the undocumented people living here and living productive lives,” Sandoval said. “He is an advocate for those who are here, especially the DREAM Act generation, children who had no choice in being here.”
Peña said he hopes to see the rhetoric about immigration toned down and for Republicans to work with Democrats to give permanent status to immigrants who are willing to contribute to American society.
“These people love this country. They love America,” he said.
And he said some of those undocumented immigrants have come to recognize him as a champion.
“A manager at a certain restaurant came out to catch me at the door and said in broken English, ‘Thank you for what you are doing to minister to Donald Trump,’ ” Peña said.