Since October, Arturo Hernandez Garcia has been living in the basement of the First Unitarian Society of Denver in sanctuary from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation order. Tuesday, he walked free for the first time in nine months — kind of.
On the church steps, Garcia told supporters he received a letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement saying he’s no longer a priority for deportation.
It’s only a “partial victory,” Garcia said, because he could still be forced onto a plane back to Mexico at any time. There is still a deportation order out against him, but ICE is using “prosecutorial discretion” not to enforce it.
Gracia sought refuge in the church to stave off immigration officials who have a policy against raiding “sensitive locations” like places of worship or schools.
He was not necessarily safe when he was in the church, and he is not necessarily safe now. Garcia said he has no illusions about that. But at this point, Garcia has enough faith in ICE officials’ word to rejoin his wife and two daughters and live the life he could not for nearly a year. He is excited to go to parks, rivers and lakes with his family.
But leaving comes with mixed feelings. “Living in this church for nine months — for me it’s like my home. I have too many friends now and wonderful people around me.”
Jennifer Piper is one of those people. She is an advocate with the American Friends Service Committee — a Quaker organization dedicated to faith-based social activism. “Sanctuary is not for everyone,” she said at the rally. “It’s a huge sacrifice. So it’s only a certain type of very honest and very passionate person who’s gonna take advantage of that.”
Garcia has been fighting deportation for five years. He first came into contact with law enforcement after a racially charged fight at work. Another contractor tried to walk on tiles he and his construction crew had just laid. The other contractor yelled at Garcia and his crew to “go back to Mexico.” Garcia ended up in cuffs and was later acquitted of all charges.
But immigration officials have been on his case since.
Over the past few years, enforcement of immigration policies has been an ever-shifting tangle of executive orders and court decisions.
At the behest of the Obama Administration last year, ICE announced it would prioritize deporting “dangerous aliens,” including those with criminal records or a history of resisting deportation orders. Garcia fit the category for having appealed his deportation case.
That was when he took sanctuary at First Unitarian. It looked like a reprieve was in sight last spring when Obama issued an executive action that let child migrants stay in the U.S. and created Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, which would have let the parents of American citizens who meet certain requirements stay too. But a Texas judge in a federal appeals court put a stop to it.
So for someone in Arturo’s position, navigating immigration policy with any kind of assurance is nearly impossible. Laws on the books are enforced on a case by case basis, with little insight into how prosecutorial discretion works.
“The way it looks is totally random and completely unexplainable because ICE has this dual kind of Dr. Jeckell-Mr. Hyde pressure on them,” Piper said.
She and other immigrant rights advocates approached several places of worship in the Denver metro area to provide relief for families like Garcia’s. After months of deliberation, First Unitarian opened its doors to him.
Pastor Mike Morran said the congregation decided collectively that the risk was worth it. “We simply recognized that the immigrant community is one with our larger community. In other words, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Morran said that faith guided the decision to take on the burden of raising funds, hiring a lawyer and finding a suitable living space for Garcia.
“In our sanctuary, you see a banner on the wall that says, ‘There’s a unity that makes us one,’ and another that says, ‘All souls are sacred and worthy,’” Moran said. “That’s our theology right there.”
Garcia’s wife Ana Sauzameda and his daughters Mariana, 16, and Andrea, 10, visited him in sanctuary nearly every day. Outside First Unitarian on Tuesday, Sauzameda said, “Here it feels like my other home because we practically lived here with him. I’m very happy they gave us the opportunity to take refuge here and that we weren’t separated.”
Laura Lichter, Garcia’s attorney, said the ICE letter is “an official recognition that Arturo really shouldn’t be the face of who gets deported from this country.”
Though ICE gets more funding than any other federal law enforcement agency, the sheer number of undocumented people in the U.S. — somewhere in the range of 11 million — means the agency has to prioritize which immigrants to go after.
“So if you look at it from a resource perspective, they’ve got around 400,000 seats on the bus,” Lichter said. “Who do you want on the bus? Do you want Arturo on the bus?”
She said there’s been a shift in public perception since the ’90s when grainy photos of shadowy figures crossing the border at night dominated the political debate. Nowadays, she said, most people seem to recognize that most undocumented immigrants are community members who work, pay taxes and raise families. They’re not necessarily criminals. “The ideologues are getting to be a smaller and smaller group of people,” Lichter said.
But still, meaningful immigration reform would mean changing federal statute and immigration activists find that getting the hyper-partisan Congress to do anything requiring compromise has already proven difficult. The looming 2016 election only makes reform harder.
So Lichter acknowledgd Garcia’s fate is anything but certain, even with this ICE letter. She said it’s the equivalent of saying “we have the axe hanging over your head but we’re not gonna drop it.”
She’s already working on another motion to reopen Garcia’s case and stay his deportation order. Since Garcia took sanctuary, ICE denied one motion to reopen his case and two stay-removal petitions. Before sanctuary, he was rejected five times.
Either way, Garcia said his activist days are only beginning. His new status as a community leader likely helped his case this time, but he knows speaking out in public is risky.
“As an undocumented immigrant, every single day is a risk,” he said. “But you just have to live your life without fear.”
Feature photo by Nat Stein.
Embedded photos by Gabriela Flora, Creative Commons, via American Friends Service Committee.