A Denver Church Joins a Nationwide Movement to Provide Sanctuary to Undocumented Immigrants

Arturo Armando Hernandez Garcia balances on an orange workman’s ladder in the front hallway of the cavernous First Unitarian Society of Denver church. The fit 42-year-old wears work boots, jeans and a T-shirt that says “Chinos Construction” on it, a souvenir from a friend’s business. He dips a paintbrush into a cup of cream-colored paint and carefully applies it to the top edge of the wall, a task he’s eagerly taken on in the hopes of breaking the monotony of his days.

But that’s not an easy thing to do. Arturo has been living inside the church for the past four months in order to avoid being deported to Mexico. The basement room where he’s staying used to be a dusty, unfinished storage space where the 144-year-old church kept its archives; now it’s painted a cheerful sunshine yellow and is filled with a donated bed, a futon, a small wooden table and an exercise bike. The walls are decorated with drawings done by his nine-year-old daughter, Andrea, including one of the family — Arturo; his wife, Ana; and Andrea and her fifteen-year-old sister, Mariana — rendered in brightly colored stick figures.

Several members of First Unitarian, which sits at the corner of 14th Avenue and Lafayette Street in Capitol Hill, renovated the room last year during a six-month deliberation period in which the entire 270-family congregation discussed whether First Unitarian should join a small but growing group of churches across the country that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who are wanted by federal authorities.

Sanctuary is a tradition that dates back to the Old Testament, when criminals could seek shelter in churches to escape punishment. Today, no law says that absconders are safe within the walls of a church. But the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has a policy stating that agents are to avoid arresting immigrants at “sensitive locations” such as churches and schools. Twenty-four churches in a dozen different cities are part of the movement. Eight churches, including First Unitarian, have provided sanctuary to a total of ten undocumented immigrants in the past year, says the Reverend Noel Andersen, a grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, a humanitarian organization that acts as a sort of clearinghouse for the sanctuary churches. First Unitarian is the only church offering sanctuary in Colorado, and Arturo is the only immigrant here living in it.

The easygoing father of two tries to focus on his brushstrokes, relax and think about nothing. But he has a lot on his mind. It’s an important day in his immigration case: As he paints, Ana is walking through the metal detectors at ICE’s Colorado offices in Centennial. She’s there to turn in Arturo’s application for a “stay of removal” that would allow him to remain in the United States even though the government has ordered him to be deported.

His application packet is thick with letters of support from seventeen Denver-area clergy members; a petition to stop his deportation signed by 5,187 people; proof that Andrea was born here and is a U.S. citizen; and an explanation of how he meets the requirements of a new program announced by President Barack Obama that is supposed to allow undocumented parents with clean records to stay in the United States. The program has been put on hold since a federal judge in Texas issued a temporary injunction on February 16.

But back in January, when Ana delivered Arturo’s stay application, it was still scheduled to take effect in May. To apply, Arturo would have to remain in the United States. But he was ordered to be deported last October. Instead of leaving, he came to live in the church.

The trend that First Unitarian has joined has been dubbed the “New Sanctuary Movement” and is a revival of the sanctuary movement of thirty years ago. In the early 1980s, faith leaders and advocates began transporting and sheltering refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala via an underground railroad of homes and churches. The refugees were crossing the Mexican border in order to flee political violence in their home countries. They hoped to find asylum here, a status that was initially denied them because the U.S. government refused to recognize the human-rights abuses being perpetrated by those countries’ U.S.-backed military forces.

A Rocky Mountain News article from October 1982 details how Coloradans were becoming involved in the sanctuary movement:

“A Tucson man, Jim Corbett, who is part of the effort, described how the operation ran in at least one case: A family of illegal immigrants from El Salvador spent the night of Aug. 4 in a Colorado Springs home. A Colorado Springs resident drove the family to Denver on Aug. 5, and a Denver man drove the family to Lincoln, Neb. The family of six — the parents, a daughter and three sons — arrived in Chicago on Aug. 9 and found sanctuary in the Wellington Avenue Church, he said.

“The family was the first group of illegal immigrants from El Salvador to pass through Colorado on the underground railroad, he said.”

In 1984, a Colorado Springs church worker became the first person to be convicted of transporting illegal aliens in connection with the sanctuary movement. A year later, the Rocky Mountain News noted that four Denver-area congregations, including the Quaker Mountain View Friends Meeting, were participating in the sanctuary movement. By 1988, the number had increased to nine, according to another News article. However, the number of Central American refugees using the underground railroad, the article says, had “slowed to a trickle.”

The sanctuary movement was reborn in 2006 when an undocumented Mexican immigrant sought refuge in a Chicago church. Elvira Arellano had been picked up in an immigration sweep of O’Hare International Airport, where she had a job cleaning airplanes. The mother of a young, U.S.-born son, Arellano took sanctuary in the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago for a year. She left the church in 2007 to participate in an immigration-reform march in Los Angeles, and was arrested and deported. But her case got a lot of attention; Time magazine named her a Person of the Year for putting a human face on the immigration-reform debate, and other immigrants followed suit, emerging from the shadows and telling their stories.

Amid that environment, former ICE director John Morton issued a now-famous memo in 2011 directing employees to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” in low-priority deportation cases, which could mean canceling the deportations of law-abiding immigrants who came to work and are raising children born here.

ICE officials declined to elaborate on that policy for this story or comment on Arturo’s case except to confirm that he was ordered to be deported.

The policy hasn’t always translated into practice, however. At best, advocates say, it’s unevenly applied. And despite the Morton memo and other seeming victories, they complain that Obama has deported more people than any previous president, though others have questioned whether ICE statistics that count both deportations of immigrants living in the United States and those turned back at the border have misleadingly inflated the numbers.

Regardless, there’s a pervasive perception among immigrants and their allies that the Obama administration is unjustly separating families. The president took executive action in 2012 to stop the deportations of immigrants brought here as children by implementing a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But though DACA was a boon for young immigrants, it did nothing for their parents. With comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Congress, advocates turned their attention to pressuring the president to extend DACA to adults, as well.

And one method they decided to try was a rejuvenation of the New Sanctuary Movement, which was started in 2006. “The sanctuary movement was a response from people of faith and impacted people working together on the ground to win executive action,” Andersen says. “These cases came right out of the community because of the reality of the fear of deportation.

“Our number-one goal has always been to stop deportations,” he continues, “and we know that one way to do that is for people to take sanctuary.... Even if they haven’t won their case yet, we know we met that initial goal to keep them with their family.”

It was that goal that Jennifer Piper, the interfaith organizing director for the American Friends Service Committee in Denver, and other advocates had in mind when they approached First Unitarian in December 2013 and asked if the church would consider hosting an immigrant.

For more than a year, members of the liberal, urban congregation had been learning about the plight of undocumented immigrants as part of a social-justice project. But this request marked an opportunity to deepen their activism. It also presented a chance to join the national movement to push the administration to make good on its promise to keep families together.

“At the local level, we’d already done lobbying,” Piper says. “We’d already done phone calls, trips to Washington, marches, vigils. There was a feeling of, ‘We have to keep doing all that, and we have to do more to show the moral crisis that our laws represent and to try to change them.’”

But not everyone at First Unitarian was eager to take such a drastic and public step. Members of the congregation had lots of questions: Would the church be breaking the law? Could members of the congregation be charged with harboring a fugitive? Would anti-immigrant protesters picket Sunday services — or worse, throw a Molotov cocktail through the window?
And who, exactly, would take sanctuary within their church’s walls?

In 1999, Arturo and Ana Garcia boarded a bus in their native Chihuahua, Mexico. Their final destination was Thornton, Colorado, where Ana had family. Her father had been working in the United States for decades and was granted amnesty under President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration-reform actions. He was on his way to becoming a U.S. citizen, and had petitioned for the same for his family. But because the waiting list can be up to twenty years long, those petitions hadn’t been granted when Ana and Arturo began their journey.

“When you’re coming here legally, it’s impossible,” Arturo says.

So they came on tourist visas with their three-month-old daughter, Mariana. It was her birth that pushed Arturo to take his family north. Like most immigrants, he wanted a better life for his child, free of violence and poverty and rich with education and opportunity. Ana was reluctant. She worried about leaving her job as a nurse at the hospital where she and Arturo met when he was doing maintenance work. She feared living in a country where she didn’t speak the language, and in a city surrounded by highways and regularly blanketed by snow. They made a deal with each other: They’d try living in America. and if they didn’t like it, they’d move back.

At first, life here wasn’t easy. Arturo worked long hours, and Ana, who was used to having a career and living an independent life in Mexico, was now alone all day in a strange place, caring for a baby. But gradually they settled into a new routine and began inching their way toward a prosperity that would have been difficult to achieve back home.

Arturo tried to do everything right: He got a driver’s license the last year it was legal for undocumented immigrants to do so before the law changed again in 2014, and renewed it regularly. He paid his taxes and never used false documents or a stolen Social Security number. He learned English and eventually started his own flooring business, negotiating to win jobs installing tile and ceramic floors in big apartment complexes. He and Ana had a second daughter, Andrea, in 2005, and the family moved from a rented apartment in Federal Heights to their own mobile home in Thornton. Arturo became a Denver Broncos fan.

By 2010, the question of whether they’d return to Mexico had long ago been answered. But in March of that year, an incident at Arturo’s job site threatened to force them back.

Arturo and his crew were working in Lone Tree, installing ceramic tile in a new apartment building. To protect the tile while it set, they strung caution tape around their work area. But one man, a window installer, didn’t take kindly to their warning. He said he needed to work in the same area, and when they told him he couldn’t, he began yelling at Arturo and his workers. “Fucking Mexicans!” he said. “Fucking aliens! You can’t tell me what to do!”

The window installer, who was white, told the job-site superintendent that Arturo had pulled a knife and threatened to kill him. Soon the police showed up and began questioning Arturo. Even though he denied everything, and even though Arturo says the man’s boss tried to convince the cops not to arrest him, Arturo was handcuffed on the spot. Arturo says that a policeman asked which tools belonged to him, and when he said that all of them did, the cop picked up one of several box cutters that were lying around the work area and put it in a plastic evidence bag. Arturo was charged with felony menacing with a weapon and misdemeanor harassment because the man also alleged that Arturo shoved him.

Arturo was taken to jail, and his bond was set at $10,000. Although that’s a huge amount of money, some friends offered to put up their house as collateral. But then Ana got more bad news: The sheriff’s office had alerted ICE that Arturo was undocumented. He now had an immigration hold, meaning that once he made bond, he’d be transferred straight from the jail in Castle Rock to the immigration detention center in Aurora.

“At that moment, everything fell,” Ana says in Spanish. “Everything was going downhill, and we didn’t know what would happen.”

Arturo spent thirty days in jail and fifteen more at the immigration detention center before bonding out. The prosecutor on his case tried to convince him to take a plea on the menacing and harassment charges and get the whole thing over with. But Arturo refused. “I told him no,” he says. “I wanted to fight my case, because I didn’t do anything.”

The court held a two-day trial in September 2010. According to Arturo, all of the witnesses save for the window installer himself backed Arturo’s version of the story. The jury took less than an hour to return a verdict: not guilty.

The acquittal didn’t mean that Arturo was in the clear, though. He still didn’t have legal status. The immigration court had put his deportation case on hold while the criminal case played out, and now that it was over, he had to pick up where he’d left off. And this time, the consequences were far greater: If he lost, he’d be going back to Mexico and leaving his young family behind.

In many ways, First Unitarian was the perfect choice for a sanctuary church. Founded in 1871, it’s long been a champion of progressive causes. When others wouldn’t dare, First Unitarian provided meeting space for the Communist Party and early gay-rights organizations. These days, the place is busy throughout the week with yoga sessions, substance-abuse support groups, karate classes and an LGBTQ square-dancing troupe. The church also gives meals and shelter to homeless women and families a few times a month.

Its members care about social-justice issues; a banner that reads “Civil Marriage Is a Civil Right” hangs on the side of the church facing busy East 14th Avenue, and the congregation recently voted to replace it with one that says “Black Lives Matter.” In 2012, a group of members decided to study immigration issues, hosting speakers, screening films, writing letters to Congress and lobbying state politicians to repeal Colorado’s show-me-your-papers law and approve driver’s licenses for the undocumented. Some even visited the border in Arizona to see the system up close.

Chris Wheeler, a retired, white-haired college professor, and his wife were among them. The experience was life-changing. “I still get tears thinking about the young man that we met who had to leave his country and come up through Mexico and got caught,” Wheeler says. “And he was going to have to go back, but his wife said, ‘You can’t come back. We have nothing. You’ve got to try again.’

“When we came back, I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got to get involved in this.’”

Others felt the same way, so it was fortuitous timing when Piper approached them in December 2013 with a proposition: A mother whose deportation case had gone on for years was running out of legal options. She was scheduled to be deported in a month but didn’t want to leave her children. Would First Unitarian consider taking her into sanctuary?

Because a decision had to be made quickly, the church’s executive board took emergency action, voting to allow the mother to take sanctuary for up to six weeks while the entire congregation mulled the issue. But the federal government granted her a stay at the last minute, making immediate sanctuary unnecessary. It also gave First Unitarian some breathing room, and the church scheduled a vote for its annual business meeting that June.

In early March, Reverend Mike Morran gave a rousing sermon on the topic. Providing sanctuary might be breaking the law, but the congregation must not confuse what is legal with what is moral, the plain-speaking pastor said from the pulpit. “It is worth noting that the forced removal of Native Americans from their land and onto reservations was legal. The capture, importation and slavery of African people was once legal.... Nazi concentration camps were perfectly legal. Crucifying Jesus was legal.”

The immigration group solicited questions from the other members, and they poured in. Kate Burns, whose parents joined the church in 1964, when she was a year old, says that despite the congregation’s liberal leanings, many members were nervous about bucking the law. Most of the congregants, she says, are white, middle-class college graduates; they had never met an undocumented immigrant and knew little about the challenges they face.

“We found as we went through the discernment process that there was a lot of education we needed to do,” Burns says. “And that speaks to the privilege, in terms of class and race, that a lot of our members inadvertently don’t know a lot about things they aren’t hit with.”

So the group set about educating them, hosting weekly forums and inviting immigrants who were living in fear of deportation. They sought advice from other sanctuary churches and retained a high-profile immigration lawyer from California, Peter Schey, who’d worked with some of those other churches and offered to represent First Unitarian pro bono. In May, Schey flew to Denver for a question-and-answer session with the congregation. The foremost question on most people’s minds was, What kind of trouble could we face if we do this?

“There is a way to do it that I think is legal,” Schey told them. It’s against the law to harbor a fugitive, Schey explained, but “harboring” contains an element of concealment. If the church doesn’t keep the person’s presence a secret — if it alerts ICE and the local police and the media and anyone else who will listen — then he doesn’t think it’s illegal. Openness, he said, is what distinguishes the New Sanctuary Movement from the sanctuary provided in the ’80s.

“Once you remove that concealment, I don’t think you’re in the realm of illegal conduct anymore,” Schey assured them. But how does that stop a person from being deported? Schey explained that it goes back to ICE’s “sensitive locations” policy. “They’re going to be loath to come into a church to arrest somebody.”

But Schey couldn’t guarantee that nothing would go wrong. Colorado could have a rogue ICE field director who hates Unitarians. Or the church could come up against protesters or even its own insurance company. First Unitarian’s insurance company reportedly told the church that it felt providing sanctuary was breaking the law and said it wouldn’t cover any damages that occurred as a result, though Schey thinks that position itself is illegal.

On June 1, after months of intense discussion, the congregation took a vote. Because it was such a big decision, the board had decreed that a two-thirds majority was needed to go forward. When the ballots were tallied, 72 percent had voted in favor.

To Wheeler, Burns and the other members of the church’s immigration-justice group, it was a huge relief. They had the congregation’s blessing. They had a room, which they were in the process of renovating with the idea that if sanctuary failed, they could use it as another classroom. They had volunteers ready to provide meals, companionship and advocacy.

Now all they needed was someone to need it.

Arturo’s immigration case should have been an easy one. It’s unremarkable in every way, experts say, a common case that they’d expect to be moved to the bottom of ICE’s priority pile.

To start with, Arturo meets the guidelines for prosecutorial discretion: He’s been in the United States for more than a decade. He’s a good father to two girls, one of whom is a U.S. citizen. He’s a small-business owner, sometimes employing up to seven other people. He has a clean criminal record (since the jury cleared him of all charges). And although he overstayed his tourist visa, he’s in line to become a legal resident thanks to his father-in-law’s application.

But discretion can be hit-or-miss, and for Arturo, it was a miss. ICE refused to close his case.

His immigration lawyer, Catharine Davies, didn’t give up. She was impressed by Arturo, a soft-spoken man who at the same time was willing to speak up. Not many undocumented immigrants, who tend to fear law enforcement and the justice system, would be willing to go through a criminal trial to prove their innocence, she says.

“If there’s anything different in this case, it’s that we have a person who is extremely — how would you put this? — he has a strength of will and a strong sense of right and wrong,” Davies says. “And he is willing to...say, ‘I’m in for this, and I’m going to stand up for myself and a lot of people who come here and don’t have that same feeling of standing up for myself.’ I admire him a lot for that. If there’s any difference in this case, it’s him.”

Davies continued trying to stop Arturo’s deportation. She argued that Arturo’s citizen daughter, Andrea, would suffer hardship if he was deported. But because Andrea is mentally and physically healthy, an immigration judge found that Arturo’s deportation would not cause her “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship,” which is the legal standard.

Davies appealed to the federal Board of Immigration Appeals, but the appeal was denied. Soon afterward, Mariana turned fifteen and became eligible for DACA, the Obama program that provides temporary relief to immigrants brought here as children. She applied, and Davies tried to reopen Arturo’s case by arguing that his deportation would cause hardship to Mariana. But the appeals board refused that argument, as well, because Mariana isn’t a citizen.

Out of appeals, Davies applied in April 2014 to stay Arturo’s deportation. The Colorado ICE office rejected the request, explaining that Arturo’s case lacked “compelling humanitarian factors” and that there was no new evidence to make them change their minds. Arturo was given a date to turn himself in to be deported: October 21, 2014.

Eighteen days before his departure date, Arturo was listening to a Spanish radio station when he heard an ad for a hotline run by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. He called and the organization connected him to Piper, who, after hearing his story, immediately thought of the empty room at First Unitarian. The month before, in September, she had helped launch the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, a group that includes six support congregations and First Unitarian, which is the only church that has agreed to host an immigrant. If First Unitarian was in many ways the perfect place to provide sanctuary, Arturo was the perfect person to take it: a sympathetic and upstanding father who’d tried everything but gotten nowhere.

“This is the most uncomplicated immigration deportation case I’ve ever worked with in ten years of being active on the issue,” Piper says. “To be honest, when they gave me the summary of his case before I called him, I was like, ‘What am I missing?’”

Piper alerted the folks at First Unitarian, who soon met with Arturo and his family. They saw in him the same things she did. “It didn’t take us long to decide, ‘This is the one,’” Wheeler says.

But Arturo wasn’t sure what to do. In his mind, going back to Mexico wasn’t an option, because in addition to being the primary breadwinner for the family, he couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from his wife and daughters. Going back would also make him lose his place in line with regard to the application his father-in-law had submitted for him years earlier, and he was determined to keep that from happening. Hiding seemed like a bad option, too; Arturo had always tried to be honest, and he says he wasn’t about to change that now.

In the end, sanctuary was the only option left. “We thought, ‘If we come here to sanctuary and we work really hard and we battle for our family and for our case, maybe we can win and all be together again,’” Arturo says. “We saw people on the news who had won their deportation cases, and my case so much meets all the guidelines for discretion.”

It’s true that sanctuary has proven effective in most cases. Of the ten people who entered sanctuary in 2014 in cities such as Philadelphia, Portland and Phoenix, seven have been granted some sort of relief by ICE — some within just a few days, says Andersen of Church World Service. The first person who entered sanctuary last year, an immigrant named Daniel Neyoy Ruiz who sought shelter in a Tucson church famous for helping Central American refugees in the ’80s, was granted a one-year stay of his deportation order after 27 days.

“It was kind of like a thorn in our sides that we hadn’t fought it publicly,” Arturo says of his case. “We hadn’t done everything we could possibly do to win and stay together.”

“Sanctuary,” Ana adds, “was an opportunity to feel like no matter what happens, we have done everything you could possibly do.”

So on October 20, the day before he was to be deported, Arturo left work early and went home to spend time with Ana and the girls. At 8 p.m. that night, the family arrived at First Unitarian, where a delegation of volunteers was waiting to meet them. Arturo didn’t bring much: a few blankets, a foam mattress and three days’ worth of clothing. As grateful as he was to the congregation, he didn’t think he’d be relying on their kindness for long.

That same day, Davies filed another request for a stay of removal. On October 31, ICE rejected it. In a letter explaining why, Colorado field office director John Longshore notes that although Arturo’s “lack of any criminal conviction and lengthy residence in the United States are notable positive factors,” they don’t outweigh the negative factors associated with his case, including that he failed to report to be deported and is now considered “an ICE absconder.”

On November 20, when Arturo had been living in sanctuary for a month, Obama gave a televised address on immigration. He announced two executive actions: the expansion of DACA to include any immigrant who entered the U.S. as a child, regardless of their age today, and the creation of a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), which would allow an estimated 4 million adult immigrants with citizen children to apply to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation and to work legally for three years.

(Both programs have been temporarily halted. On February 16, a federal judge in Texas sided with 26 states that filed a lawsuit to block the programs’ implementation. Colorado was not among the states that sued. The Obama administration has vowed to appeal.)

Following Obama’s announcement, Colorado representatives Ed Perlmutter, Jared Polis and Diana DeGette wrote a letter to Longshore asking ICE to grant Arturo a stay so that he could apply for DAPA when it becomes available. Given that Arturo is not a priority for deportation under ICE’s own guidelines, the representatives wrote, “we believe a stay of removal is warranted in this case.” Colorado Senator Michael Bennet sent a similar letter.

Arturo’s attorney agrees with them, and she put together another stay application — the one that Ana hand-delivered to ICE back in January. But despite the fact that officials told her they’d give an answer within two weeks, Arturo still hasn’t heard anything.

In a short statement provided to the press, ICE notes that Arturo was ordered to be deported after he declined to depart voluntarily. But his voluntary departure date occurred while Arturo was waiting to hear back from the Board of Immigration Appeals. If he had left, he says, he would have essentially forfeited that appeal.

As he waits for an answer on his latest stay application, Arturo spends his days visiting with volunteers who bring him meals, students who come to learn his story, and journalists who hope to tell it. His room has become full of artifacts that demonstrate how long he’s been there: Birthday cards from when he turned 42 on November 2, Christmas greetings tacked to a bulletin board, and a home karaoke machine that his friends brought on New Year’s Eve. A bookshelf holds several card games and some of Andrea’s toys, including a Mrs. Potato Head. The top shelf is home to an impressive collection of potted plants brought by visitors.

When he has no visitors, Arturo passes the time by reading, watching TV, listening to the radio or playing solitaire on his iPad. Ana and Andrea come to the church nearly every night, bringing food and clean laundry, and Mariana hangs out on the weekends. On Sundays, Arturo attends the 9 a.m. service, and a few times, the religious-education director has organized an afternoon indoor soccer game in the church’s multipurpose room.

The game is a reminder of Arturo’s life before sanctuary, when he spent his free time cooking carne asada on the grill, watching movies with his family and taking Andrea to a tract of land owned by his brother-in-law so she could ride her ATV. His and Ana’s house was a family gathering spot, he says, always full of siblings, nieces, cousins and friends.

Theirs was a happy life, and a private one. Now they live publicly. In December, Ana and the girls traveled to Washington, D.C., with Church World Service to meet with ICE officials and Colorado politicians. They were given six minutes to talk about Arturo and ask for help in stopping his deportation. Ana says the officials listened patiently but made no commitments.

In addition, family members have become regular participants at local vigils, rallies and protests. They’ve gathered signatures on petitions, held signs, chanted, shaken noisemakers and marched in circles in places where immigration officials could see them. Ana regularly takes a turn at the microphone, giving updates about Arturo’s case.

On February 12, she stood before a crowd of more than one hundred people lining the sidewalk outside ICE’s Colorado offices. Today, Ana said, is Arturo’s 115th day in sanctuary. “But for us as a family, it feels like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of days.” We need your continued support, she implored the crowd, to pressure ICE to let him come home.

Those who support sanctuary say it has three goals, and Arturo’s case has met two of them: It has protected him from the immediate threat of deportation and helped educate the broader community about the struggle of undocumented immigrants. The church members who had doubts about offering sanctuary, the 28 percent who voted against it, have since come around, Reverend Morran says: Watching Arturo with his family, how could they not?

“It has been profound to take immigration justice out of the abstract and see what this means for real people who love each other, who love their children, who work hard, who are putting every ounce of their energy and their being into trying to do the right thing, just like us,” he says.

Plus, Morran says, the sky didn’t fall. Despite some hate mail that arrived in his in-box, protesters did not break the windows. ICE did not break down the door.

But the last goal of sanctuary has remained elusive: Arturo still doesn’t know if he can stay in the country. And as more time passes, it becomes harder to remain positive.

“Sometimes I feel like, ‘We’re not going to do it anymore,’” Ana says. “But then it seems like a new possibility opens up and I say, ‘Let’s see what happens this time.’”

Arturo feels the same. Although he’s been tempted to give up, to leave the church and risk deportation, so far he’s stayed put, waking up each day in his small, albeit cheerfully painted, basement room, away from his family temporarily in hopes of being with them forever.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar