No sanctuary: Immigrants struggle to keep families together in wake of Obama’s deportation-relief delay

Arturo Hernandez Garcia, 42, has been waiting seven months in the basement of the First Unitarian Church of Denver for some shift in national immigration policy that will lift his final deportation order and allow him to return home to his wife and children in Thornton.

On Tuesday a federal appeals court upheld a Texas judge’s move to freeze Obama’s immigration executive actions during a 26-state legal challenge. That means Garcia and the 30,000-plus other Coloradans who could qualify for deportation relief under the actions will have to continue to wait.

“If he’s out in public, if he’s back home, ICE [Immigration Customs Enforcement] could pick him up at any point and immediately deport him,” said Jenn Piper of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition. “He wouldn’t have a right to another hearing or to a stay… the consequence would be immediate deportation.”

Not so long ago, Garcia was leading a blessed life. He owned his own tiling company with half a dozen employees and a home for his wife and two daughters.

But in 2010, Garcia learned the hard way that his life, liberties and pursuit of happiness were threatened after a racially-charged argument with another contractor put Garcia before a judge and his undocumented status before ICE.

Though the judicial system found Garcia innocent of the assault he was charged with, the damage was done. He has been fighting deportation proceedings for five years.

Garcia with his family and supporters just weeks into his sanctuary at First Unitarian in Denver. Photo by Tessa Cheek.

Last November, in the midst of midterm elections, Garcia effectively ran out of time. Facing separation from his family and deportation to a country he has not called home for fifteen years, Garcia turned to the church, seeking sanctuary because ICE typically does not conduct immigration raids in schools and places of worship. His family tries to visit him every day.

Despite the political hit comprehensive immigration reform took in November, things appeared to be looking up for Garcia when news broke of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

In addition to protecting child arrivals from deportation (DACA), Obama ordered that the parents of legal citizens or residents should be able to stay as well — so long as they arrived before 2010 and had a clean criminal record.

Garcia, whose 10-year old daughter was born in this country, could qualify for “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans” or DAPA, giving him a way out of the church basement and back to work and home.

At the same time, ICE issued new deportation priorities intended to focus proceedings first on those with criminal records and then on “immigration violators” who have resisted or refused deportation orders — as Arturo did in an effort to exercise his right to appeal his case.

Immigration activists say that the new ICE priorities, which were intended to shift the agency’s resources to “dangerous aliens,” have actually made things worse for immigrants like Garcia.

Piper pointed out that a single bureaucrat is often responsible for making the final, life-changing decision about whether to use discretion in a given deportation case. It’s also something of a “black box” in which discretion decisions are passed down without explanation, review or the possibility of appeal. The system is highly irregular, often producing opposite outcomes for nearly identical cases.

“I feel for them [these immigration officials],” said Piper. “The executive is telling them one thing, Congress is telling them another, and they have to figure out how to navigate all these conflating priorities and PR nightmares.”

ICE officials did not respond to request for comment.

The day after the courts agreed to freeze Obama’s immigration actions, Piper and other immigration activists protested at the Colorado state Capitol. They called for a quick resolution to the immigration relief delays. They also asked ICE to grant more discretion in cases like Garcia’s and to be more open with the community about how they make those decisions.

Garcia, who was unable to leave the church, issued the following statement rallying supporters to protest deportations and immigration-reform inaction with a nationwide strike:

“June 16th through the 18th we’re calling for a nationwide fast to make it clear we hold the national ICE office and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] responsible for a failure to implement policies and priorities that would protect families like mine,” Garcia wrote. “Members of the local [sanctuary movement] will travel to DC to lead the fast in front of ICE headquarters together with other national groups and call for discretion in my case and others. Will you join us in fasting either in DC or locally?”

The courts could decide on the the legality of Obama’s immigration actions as early as July, though whichever way the decision goes it is likely to be appealed.


Immigration activists from The American Friends Service Committee gather to protest a court ruling to freeze Obama’s immigration executive actions. Image via the AFSC.