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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Rev. Steve Klemz of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and his wife, Norma, show photos of family members on a wall in their Murray home as they talk about her immigration situation on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.

MURRAY — During a recent round-table discussion on the need for immigration reform, the attendees shared their respective interests in the issue.

Some people were business owners who struggle to maintain a workforce, some of them executives in the high-tech world, one of them a farmer. Others championed immigrants' innovation and entrepreneurship.

Then came the Rev. Steve Klemz' turn: his wife, Norma, has twice been in deportation proceedings.

Although standing for social justice "is a part of my DNA," his wife's and family's experiences have made the issue of immigration intensely personal, said Rev. Klemz, pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City.

"There's always been the sense how the church, how our faith, how the gospel makes room for people," Rev. Klemz said.

But when people talk about immigration in terms of "'those people are like this,' I say, 'You're talking about my wife.'"

While Norma's case has been "administratively closed," the Klemz household lives with the very real possibility the case could be reopened. Despite repeated attempts, the couple's applications for Norma's green card through marriage have been denied, which means she has no legal status.

"It's limbo," says Norma Klemz, who works as a legal secretary.

The couple, married in 2001, are legal guardians to their 5-year-old grandson, Micah, who is on the autism spectrum, they said.

The Rev. Klemz sees little point to the federal government refusing to grant legal permanent resident status to his wife who is law-abiding, devoted to their congregation and gives back to the community.

"Everything she touches, she makes more beautiful," he said.

Still, the Klemzes live with the specter of their family being torn apart, he said.

"The greatest fear is not her being deported, it's Norma being detained," he said.

Given their circumstances, the Klemzes have more than a passing interest in the upcoming presidential election.

GOP nominee Donald Trump's early statements about illegal immigration were chilling, Norma Klemz said, particularly his stated intention deport an estimated 11 million immigrants unauthorized to be in the United States.

While he has toned down the rhetoric somewhat as Election Day approaches, even visiting Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City on Wednesday prior to a high-profile address in Arizona, Norma Klemz said it matters little what he says now.

"We already know what his thoughts are," she said.

Norma Klemz, formerly Norma Gonzalez, was 18 years old when she entered the United States illegally with her father, she said.

Her sister, who lived in the United States, had just suffered the loss of her infant daughter. Norma's father told her he needed her to go with him to help take care of her sister's three sons.

She had no intention to stay but her sister, whose husband was abusive, needed her help and support. But it wasn't safe for her to stay there, either, and she was soon on her own in a strange country and she knew very little English

Months turned into years. She worked selling T-shirts at swap meets, she cooked, served food, was a housekeeper and in one job at a warehouse that sold vegetables, she handled the money. "I used to go to the bank and deposit $40,000 to $50,000 at a time," she said.

Along the way, she met a man with whom she had two children, a son and a daughter.

While working as a house painter in a small town in Montana, Norma Klemz fell from a roof and seriously injured her back.

At a hospital in Seattle where she was transported, she was asked two questions, whether she had insurance and inexplicably, she says, whether she was a U.S. citizen.

She answered both questions honestly, "No" on both counts, and afterward, she was left alone in a trauma room for hours before receiving care, she said.

Her injury left her unable to work, and she feared her children would be taken into state custody because she was unable to provide for them, let alone pay medical bills.

Between her financial straits and the father of her children telling immigration authorities about her status as he faced his own immigration problems, Norma Klemz found herself in deportation proceedings.

Worse yet, she said immigration documents ordering her to present certain paperwork or to appear to court were repeatedly getting lost in the mail, despite her attempts to keep immigration authorities apprised of her address.

Faith, she says, led her to Salt Lake City. She was raised a Catholic, but it was too far for her to walk to the closest Catholic church, so she decided to attend Zion Lutheran Evangelical Church.

At the time, the Rev. Klemz was working on behalf of the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. They met upon his return, although at the time the Rev. Klemz was married but in a union that had become "distant," he said.

A while later, Klemz and his first wife divorced. Norma was also divorced from a man she met after leaving her children's father, whom she had never married.

The Rev. Klemz, who had been greatly affected by the extreme poverty and deprivation he experienced in Africa, had a captive audience in Norma, who had experienced many of the same circumstances growing up on a small farm in Mexico. She came from a large family that had an orchard. But persistent drought killed the trees and her family's livelihood.

The Klemzes are deeply committed to social justice, each in their own ways. The Rev. Klemz is a well-known advocate in Utah and nationally on the issue of immigration reform, traveling to Washington, D.C., on multiple occasions to meet with policymakers and other advocates.

The Rev. Klemz said recently he was never so proud of his country as he watched in person the U.S. Senate in 2013 approve an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws on a vote of 68-32. The legislation later died in the House when leaders refused to take up the Senate measure.

Norma Klemz was an unnamed plaintiff, Jane Doe #1, in a federal lawsuit filed by civil rights organizations challenging the constitutionality of HB497, Utah Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act. The bill was passed by the Utah Legislature in 2011 as part of a package of bills addressing immigration, but the federal lawsuit prevented key components of the so-called "show me your papers law" from going into effect.

Support for families was also part of the Utah Compact, which brought together leaders from government, business and religion to help guide immigration policies in Utah. Among the principles was opposition to policies that would unnecessarily separate families.

Norma Klemz has also worked through the couple's church to raised money to support an Evangelical Lutheran Church on the U.S. border to Mexico.

The Rev. Klemz said he understands that many religious leaders feel the need to toe the line of church and state. Still, the upcoming election, particularly that nation's handling of immigration in the future, has real-life consequences for families and individuals. The nation needs to hear their voices, he says.

"We have a lot of work to do," the Rev. Klemz says matter of factly.

If his wife is removed from the country, the Rev. Klemz will join her because breaking up the family is not an option, a family that also includes Norma's children, who are now adults.

"He tells me if I go, he'll go," Norma Klemz said.

"You know I would," he said assuredly.

Although immigration is one of the major issues being debated this election season, the Rev. Klemz said he is not optimistic that reform will come soon so he will continue to lean on his faith as his family copes with uncertainty.

"We have decided to be in faith rather than living in fear," he said.