It ended as it began, with the heavy wood doors of the First Unitarian Society of Denver swinging open to make way for Arturo Hernandez Garcia.
But instead of going in to the church, today he and his family walked out.
Hernandez Garcia announced that he is leaving the church after exactly nine months. On October 21, 2014, the undocumented father of two young daughters took sanctuary there to avoid deportation. Since then, he has been sleeping in a room in the basement and fighting his deportation case. He has not left the church grounds for fear of being picked up by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has a policy to avoid arresting people at "sensitive locations."
After walking out the doors, Hernandez Garcia, his wife Ana, their sixteen-year-old daughter Mariana and their ten-year-old daughter Andrea made their way down the church's stately stone staircase through a thicket of sign-waving supporters to a podium and a microphone. "Today, I'm taking a step forward," Hernandez Garcia said. "I'm leaving sanctuary."
But that doesn't mean that Hernandez Garcia's battle to stay in the United States is over. The 42-year-old still faces a deportation order, and federal immigration officials have thus far refused to drop it. Instead, they sent a letter in June assuring Hernandez Garcia that he is not a priority for deportation. "It's kind of a read-between-the-lines situation," says his attorney, Laura Lichter. After several weeks of back-and-forth with federal immigration officials, Hernandez Garcia made the decision to leave sanctuary on the nine-month anniversary of when he entered.
"This is a partial victory in my case," Hernandez Garcia explained to his supporters and the news cameras gathered in a half-circle in front of him. "We're going to keep fighting."
"There's a bit of a leap of faith on his part," Lichter says.
But it's a leap that Hernandez Garcia is willing to take. He came to the United States from Mexico in 1999 with Ana and Mariana, who was an infant. Ana's father was already living here and was on the path to becoming a U.S. citizen. He'd petitioned for the same for his daughter and son-in-law, but the immigration waiting list is decades long. So the couple came to the U.S. on a tourist visa, in search of a better life for themselves and their baby daughter.
They found it here. Hernandez Garcia learned English and eventually started his own flooring business. The family moved from a rented apartment in Federal Heights to their own mobile home in Thornton. Andrea was born in 2005; she's the only family member who is a U.S. citizen. Along the way, Hernandez Garcia tried to do everything right: He never used false documents, and he always paid his taxes.
But in 2010, immigration officials learned that he was in the U.S. illegally. He was arrested by local police after arguing with a window installer at a job site. The window installer — a white man — became angry when Hernandez Garcia told him he couldn't work in a certain area because the new floor was still setting. The man shouted racial slurs at Hernandez Garcia and his crew and then accused Hernandez Garcia of pulling a knife and threatening to kill him.
Hernandez Garcia insisted that he was innocent and refused to take a plea bargain. At trial, a jury found him innocent. But local officials had already informed federal immigration authorities that he was undocumented. After the verdict, the feds began the process of deporting him.
Hernandez Garcia hired a lawyer and appealed to stay in the U.S. with his family. But he lost, and federal immigration officials gave him a date to turn himself in to be deported. Instead of doing that, he took sanctuary at First Unitarian. Westword told his story in a February cover story, "Sacred Ground."
Over the next nine months, a coalition of supporters fiercely advocated for Hernandez Garcia. They wrote letters, signed petitions, met with lawmakers, held rallies, led marches, participated in fasts and protested outside ICE's Colorado headquarters. "We have done this because we are connected," Reverend Mike Morran of First Unitarian said today.
"There is no 'us' and 'them' on this or any other glorious day that the Lord has made."
Hernandez Garcia was involved every step of the way, but his participation was limited by his confinement in the church. Tonight, he says he's looking forward to sleeping in his own bed. Tomorrow, he plans to spend time with his family, "being outside in the fresh air and being free."
Hernandez Garcia says his time in sanctuary has taught him to appreciate the simpler things in life. It has also taught him that community is a powerful thing. "There have been some really difficult things," he says, "but there have been beautiful things also." The experience introduced him to many new people who he never would have met — people who barely knew him at the beginning but were willing to advocate for him and support his family through one of the most trying times in their lives.
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The separation and public airing of his plight has been especially tough on his daughters, he says, but he believes it's also given them some valuable lessons. "I hope that it's proof that you can confront your problems, and that they know they can stand up for themselves," he says.
First Unitarian is part of a group of churches across the country that is providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Two other immigrants remain in sanctuary: Rosa Robles, who is living in a church in Tucson, and Sulma Franco, who is in sanctuary in Austin.
Below, watch a video from Hernandez Garcia's time in sanctuary.