“It is not easy to be here,” says Araceli Velasquez. “But it’s allowing me to be with my family.”
Standing behind a podium at a welcoming ceremony on August 23, the young mother of three U.S.-born children holds back tears as she surveys a crowd gathered on her behalf in a large worship hall. The building, and many of the faces, are still unfamiliar to her, but they won’t remain so for long.
Velasquez is the latest immigrant in Colorado to claim sanctuary to avoid deportation, and the building shared by Temple Micah and Park Hill United Methodist Church in the Park Hill neighborhood has become her new home for however long she feels is necessary.
Velasquez has been in sanctuary since August 9, the day she decided not to attend a scheduled check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, fearing her imminent deportation. She arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 2010, seeking asylum to escape gang violence in her native country. She has since gotten married and given birth to three children in the U.S. But her asylum claim was eventually denied. While Velasquez did receive a one-year stay of removal in 2016 as she appealed her case, she was not granted a renewed stay of removal in 2017 under President Trump.
Her situation is not unique. Velasquez is just the most recent example in what has been an unprecedented demand for sanctuary in Colorado since Trump took office in January. The most notable sanctuary-seeker has been Jeanette Vizguerra, who made international headlines when she took sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society in Capitol Hill. In April, Vizguerra was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Although Vizguerra left sanctuary on May 12 after private bills were introduced on her behalf in Washington, D.C., and she was subsequently granted a new stay of removal, the demand for sanctuary by others like Velasquez continues unabated.
The concept of sanctuary is predicated on the understanding that immigration authorities respect houses of worship as being off-limits for enforcement. There has never been an immigration raid on a religious institution in the U.S., though the law does not expressly prohibit it. Rather, the restraint is built primarily on historical precedent, with churches, synagogues and mosques providing sanctuary for oppressed peoples as far back as medieval times, and more recently (and locally) during two broad sanctuary movements in the United States.
Jennifer Piper has been a principal organizer of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, a group of faith campuses offering sanctuary. Piper says that the original sanctuary movement in the United States began during the 1980s, when there was a refugee crisis in Central America as a result of civil wars, and American churches took in refugees seeking asylum. The second, or “new sanctuary movement,” as Piper puts it, is ongoing and began in 2006, when an undocumented Mexican immigrant named Elvira Arellano was detained during a sweep of the O’Hare airport in Chicago. After taking sanctuary at a church in Chicago for a year, Arellano was later deported following her participation and arrest at an immigration-reform march in Los Angeles. Her deportation brought more attention to the new sanctuary movement.
Piper explains that the groundwork for sanctuary in Denver was also established during this time.
The same year that Arellano took sanctuary in Chicago, the Colorado Legislature passed SB-90, which required local and state law enforcement officers to report people they suspected of being undocumented to ICE. The measure was later repealed in 2013, but there was a time, Piper says, when “up to 8,000 people were detained or deported per year in Colorado.”
One of those detainees was Jeanette Vizguerra. The longtime labor- and immigrant-rights activist was pulled over in a traffic stop in 2009, and was reported to ICE after the traffic cop discovered that she didn’t have a driver’s license. Vizguerra is still fighting to remain in the United States. But until she claimed sanctuary this year, most people didn’t know the central role she played in establishing the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition in 2013. (Until entering sanctuary herself, in February 2017, Vizguerra had kept her organizing for the coalition a secret for fear that it would negatively affect her immigration proceedings.)
In 2013, it was Vizguerra who began the conversation around sanctuary in Denver, after she was detained by ICE while returning from an emergency trip to Mexico to tend to her ailing mother, who died as Vizguerra was flying to be by her bedside. Piper remembers that when Vizguerra returned to the United States and was in and out of ICE detention centers, “she knew that I had been to a lot of interfaith conferences about sanctuary, and she asked if I would help her find a church that would offer her sanctuary.”
Together with a pastor named Anne Dunlap, Piper approached a half-dozen faith communities to ask if they would offer Vizguerra sanctuary ahead of her next scheduled check-in with ICE, in February 2014.
“Luckily, Jeanette didn’t need [sanctuary] that February,” Piper continues.
But the inquiry sparked a discussion, and the first congregation to come on board the sanctuary movement was the First Unitarian Society of Denver, after more than 70 percent of its members voted to offer sanctuary should an immigrant request it.
By September 2014, three other congregations had pledged to support sanctuary-seekers, and the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition was established.
“Three weeks later, Arturo [Hernandez Garcia] called us. And ten days after that, he was in sanctuary for the next nine months,” Piper recalls.
Hernandez Garcia became the first person to enter sanctuary with the help of the coalition in Denver, and was the subject of Westword’s February 24, 2015, cover story, “Sacred Ground.” He left sanctuary in July 2015 but has been questioned or detained by ICE since then; he continues to fight his immigration case and remains involved with the sanctuary coalition.
Since Trump assumed office, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of sanctuary-seekers, Piper says.
“From 2014 to when President Trump took office, we had three people approach us to possibly come into sanctuary, two of whom actually entered,” says Piper. “From the time President Trump was elected until today [August 23], we’ve had ten people ask us.”
Asked why she believes there is more demand for sanctuary, Pipers explains, “I think that now more people are considering sanctuary simply because all of the other options have been closed. Under President Obama, there were opportunities to advocate for discretion, for a stay of deportation or for closing the case of a person.... Under President Trump, the shift is that they don’t use discretion at all. And what that means is that, for someone like Araceli [Velasquez], who had received a stay the year before, she’s not going to receive that same stay of deportation this year.
“In all the time I’ve done this work, I’ve never seen people so worried about whether they’re going to be here tomorrow or not,” Piper adds.
Not only are there more sanctuary-seekers, but more congregations are joining the sanctuary movement. Prior to 2017, the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition had seven member congregations and was acting alone as the only such coalition in Colorado. Now, the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition has eleven participating congregations (including one in Boulder), and other similar groups have launched in Colorado Springs (which has four supporting congregations) and Glenwood Springs, with a soon-to-be-announced coalition starting in Fort Collins.
There’s even a participating Methodist church in the rural, 1,300-person town of Mancos in southwest Colorado; the church has hosted an immigrant named Rosa Sabido since June 2.
Still, Piper worries about having enough space for future sanctuary-seekers in Denver. Only three of the congregations in the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition are “host” congregations — meaning that the faith campuses have enough space and amenities like bedrooms and a kitchenette to comfortably allow a sanctuary-seeker to live there long-term. Two of those host congregations — the First Unitarian Society and the Mountain View Friends Meeting House — are about to undergo renovations, so they will be unavailable for sanctuary-seekers until their construction projects are completed.
Unless more host congregations come on board, that leaves the shared Temple Micah/Park Hill United Methodist space, where Velasquez is currently staying, as the sole host in Denver (other congregations in the coalition provide support in the way of food and clothing, as well as volunteers for efforts like the ICE raid hotline, known as the Rapid Response Network).
No matter how many spaces are available, though, Piper explains that sanctuary is offered on a first-come basis.
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“We don’t try to weigh one family in suffering against another. That comes from our leadership team — from Arturo [Hernandez Garcia] and Ingrid [Latorre] and Jeanette [Vizguerra], all of whom have actually lived in sanctuary,” she says. “It was their decision to say, ‘We’re not going to decide who’s worthy and who’s not all over again, like society has already done. We’re going to accept people on a first-need basis.’”
Before someone enters sanctuary, the host congregation and the individual and his or her family members seeking protection go through what Piper calls a “discernment process.”
“The discernment process looks at whether [the sanctuary-seeker] is in a strong enough place, emotionally and psychologically and spiritually, to really do it,” she says. “We haven’t had to say no to anyone, but we’ve had folks say to us, ‘I don’t think that I can live with that uncertainty or with the constant publicity...because it’s a sacrifice, both of your privacy and of your freedom, to do sanctuary. It’s a difficult decision to make that leap.”