On the afternoon of Friday, March 20, more than one hundred marchers set off from the First Unitarian Society of Denver, bound for the federal immigration court downtown. Arturo Hernandez Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who has taken sanctuary in the church to avoid deportation, stood on the stone steps to see them off. Friday marked five months that the father of two has lived in the church, hoping that immigration officials will grant his request to stay in the United States.
As the marchers made their way down busy Colfax Avenue, Arturo's wife Ana got a phone call. It was Arturo, and he had disappointing news: After weeks and weeks of waiting, immigration officials had denied his request for a "stay of removal." Jennifer Piper, an advocate with the American Friends Service Committee, asked Ana if she wanted to stop the march. No, Ana reportedly said. Let's continue.
When they reached the courthouse, Ana spoke into a bullhorn and explained her decision to the crowd. Piper, who has become a close ally, translated her words: "I said, 'No, because there are all these people, all this support and all this love, and I don't want to stop.'"
Arturo says he's saddened by this latest setback. But he's decided to stay in sanctuary and continue fighting his deportation case. He has a lot of support, including from local clergy and Colorado congressmen. There is no limit to the number of stay-of-removal requests an immigrant can file, advocates say, though the chances they'll be granted grow slimmer with each rejection.
"I had a lot of hope for this time," Arturo says. "I’m sad for me and for my family. We can try to move forward. We can try one more time."
Arturo and Ana came to the United States from Mexico in 1999, seeking a better life for themselves and their three-month-old daughter, Mariana. They settled in Colorado, where Arturo learned English and started his own flooring business. The couple had another daughter, Andrea, in 2005, and eventually bought a mobile home in Thornton. Because Andrea was born here, she is a U.S. citizen.
But Arturo is not. In 2010, he was arrested at a job site after a window installer became angry that Arturo told him he couldn't work in an area where he and his crew had just laid tile; the window installer hurled racial slurs at Arturo and later accused him of pulling a knife and threatening him. Arturo insisted it wasn't true, and a jury agreed with him; he was acquitted at trial.
But the sheriff's office had alerted federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement that Arturo was undocumented, and the agency started the process of deporting him.
Arturo hired a lawyer and fought to stay in the U.S. But his efforts were denied, and the feds finally gave him a date to be deported: October 21, 2014. Instead, Arturo went to live at First Unitarian. The church agreed to shelter him — and though it can't guarantee that immigration officials won't come after him, ICE's own policy is to avoid arresting people at "sensitive locations," including churches.
On Friday, Arturo's supporters packed the church before the march. They practiced chants and songs, filling the sanctuary with shouts of "Si, se puede!" Assistant minister Beth Chronister addressed the crowd. "Today, we march for them," she said, referring to Arturo and his family. "Today, we pray with our feet. Today, we are building up a new world."
Arturo also took a turn at the microphone. He was wearing a T-shirt made especially for the occasion that featured a black-and-white selfie of his family. Ana was by his side as he spoke. "I hope that I am allowed to stay in the United States with my family," he said.
The marchers set off around 2:30 p.m., walking in the sunshine holding signs that read "I Am Arturo," "Families Belong Together" and "Arturo Belongs Here." It took them nearly an hour and a half to reach the courthouse a mile and a half away. Once they did, they continued marching in a circle on the sidewalk. "Keep Arturo Home!" they shouted. "Say Yes Now! Keep Arturo Home! Say Yes Now!"
When someone driving by shouted, "Go home!," Piper was quick to answer. "We are home!" she shouted back.
It was Piper who broke the news to the marchers that Arturo's request for a "stay of removal" had been denied. A longtime immigrant-rights advocate, she assured the crowd that although the decision was discouraging, "sometimes the most important battles take a long time." Then she asked the crowd a question: If we keep fighting, will you be with us? Their answer was swift: "Yes!" they shouted.
"With this group, we don't have to be afraid," she said. "We are going to win one day."
Below, see more photos from the march.