In 2014, ten undocumented immigrants entered sanctuary in churches around the country in order to avoid being deported. Arturo Armando Hernandez Garcia was one of them. As explained in this week's cover story, "Sacred Ground," Arturo has been living at the First Unitarian Society of Denver church for four months, waiting to hear if federal immigration officials will allow him to stay in the United States.
He's one of only three immigrants who remain in sanctuary. The other seven were granted some form of relief, which allowed them to leave the churches where they were living. One of those seven, Angela Navarro of Philadelphia, traveled to Denver this past weekend to meet Arturo and his family. At a small event at First Unitarian on Sunday, Navarro explained that she came to lend spiritual support to Arturo and to share ideas to help him win his immigration case. "It's horrible to live with a deportation order," said the mother of two.
Navarro would know. She was first detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2003, when she was sixteen years old and pregnant with her first child. She was ordered to be deported to her native Honduras in 2004, but she never left. For ten years, she lived in fear that immigration officials would arrest her, often moving from place to place so they wouldn't find her.
It was her mother who suggested she take sanctuary, Navarro says. Navarro's mother had become involved in the nationwide movement and when she heard that a church in Philadelphia was willing to take someone in, she nominated her daughter.
On November 18, 2014, Navarro, her husband, her eleven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter went to live at West Kensington Ministry, a Presbyterian church in Philly. With the help of a lawyer who heard about her plight and offered to help, Navarro submitted an application for a "stay of removal," which would stop her deportation and allow her to remain in the U.S. On January 14, after Navarro spent 58 days in sanctuary, federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials granted it.
"The day that I got the news, I felt relief but not happiness because I knew there were three more people in sanctuary," Navarro said on Sunday. "I understood that suffering because I lived it for ten years. I want us to band together to bring everyone home."
The three people who remain have been in sanctuary longer than Navarro was, according to Church World Service, a humanitarian organization that is helping to organize the sanctuary churches.
Rosa Robles Loreto has been at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson for 203 days. The mother of two was ordered to be deported after a minor traffic violation. Eleazar Misael Perez Cabrera also ended up in deportation proceedings after being pulled over. He's been in sanctuary at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix for 101 days.
And then there's Arturo, who's been living at First Unitarian for 130 days. He and his wife came to the United States in 1999, eventually settling in Thornton with their daughters, one of whom was born here and is a U.S. citizen. Arturo got a driver's license, learned English and started his own flooring business.
He came to the attention of immigration officials after he was arrested in 2010 in connection with an incident at a job site; a window installer claimed Arturo had pulled a knife on him after Arturo told him he couldn't walk in the area where he and his crew were laying tile. The window installer, who is white, also yelled racist slurs at Arturo. The case went to trial and Arturo was acquitted of all charges.
But officials at the jail had alerted immigration authorities that Arturo was undocumented. Though he and his attorney attempted to show that Arturo's case is a low priority under the federal government's own guidelines, he was ordered to be deported on October 21, 2014. Instead of leaving, he went to live in the church.
Like Navarro, Arturo is seeking a stay of removal. On Sunday, he said he won't give up fighting his case until he wins one.
"This isn't a fight that's only about me," he said. There are so many other people involved across the country, he added.
The highest-profile of those are the ten immigrants who entered sanctuary. Beside Navarro, the six who won relief are Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, Francisco Perez, Marco Tulio, Luiz Acabal-Lopez, Francisco Aguirre and Beatriz Ramirez. The Reverend Noel Andersen, a grassroots coordinator with Church World Service, says each immigrant's case was a bit different, as was the type of relief they won.
But they have one thing in common: None of them were in sanctuary for an extended period of time. Andersen says advocates are worried that immigration officials may be growing hesitant to continue granting relief to people who take sanctuary.
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"We are concerned about whether or not ICE is trying to deter others from entering sanctuary by prolonging these cases," he says.
As for Arturo's case, Andersen says he doesn't understand the reason for the delay. "From my own perspective and opinion, I’m surprised they have not granted him a stay of removal yet," he says, especially since Arturo would qualify for a new program announced by President Obama in November that is supposed to allow undocumented parents with clean records to stay in the United States. The program has been put on hold temporarily after a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction on February 16 against it and another Obama program.
Arturo hopes to hear soon. Though living in sanctuary has been difficult, he said on Sunday that Navarro's visit gave him hope.
"This inspires me," he said, "to keep moving forward and fighting."