Colorado Immigrants Offered Sanctuary in Church Face Agonizing Decision

Jorge Zaldivar with his family at their home in southwest Denver.
Jorge Zaldivar with his family at their home in southwest Denver. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
The night before his November 13 check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jorge Zaldivar faced an agonizing choice: go to the check-in and risk being detained and eventually deported, or enter sanctuary in a local church.

"We had discussed the idea and had everything in place for it," says Zaldivar's wife, Christina, about Jorge considering entering sanctuary in a Denver church. "But because he has nothing to run from, he just keeps thinking in the positive. 'The law is supposed to work. What do I have to run from?'"

Zaldivar decided, as he had many times before, to go to his check-in. Every time he had gone in the past, he was allowed to leave. However, on November 13, ICE, which declined to comment for this story, detained him.

Zaldivar is now in ICE custody at the Aurora immigrant detention facility, which is run by the private prison company GEO Group, and awaiting possible deportation.

Originally from Mexico, Zaldivar is undocumented. Because he's married to a U.S. citizen, in theory he has an obvious path toward gaining the right to stay in the U.S.

But in the convoluted immigration process for America’s ten million-plus undocumented residents, nothing is a sure bet.

On June 1, Jorge sat with his chin in his hands in his and Christina's home in southwest Denver while Christina explained Jorge’s complicated and confusing immigration situation to Westword.

“They can detain him on the 11th and get him out [of the U.S.] as fast as they can,” Christina said in reference to Jorge’s July 11 check-in with ICE.

The conversation left Jorge feeling distraught. “I don’t want to go back to Mexico. I’ve got nothing there. All my life is my family," Jorge said.

Jorge came to the U.S. from Mexico in the late ’90s. He and Christina met in 2000, married in 2005 and have two children together. Jorge also considers Christina's three other children from a previous relationship, the oldest of which is 24, to be his own. Jorge works in carpentry, but only does so if he has an active work permit, which isn't always the case.

In 2001, Jorge drove a drunk friend home using the friend's car and kept the car overnight, with the friend's permission, Christina says. The friend woke up and didn't remember what happened and reported the car stolen. Jorge was pulled over and temporarily detained by law enforcement in Arapahoe County until the friend came by and explained what had happened, leading to Jorge's release without charges. But the incident would come back to haunt him.

In 2007, Jorge and Christina returned to Mexico to sort out his immigration situation at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez. His goal was to get on the right side of federal immigration law, which seemed plausible since he was married to a U.S. citizen and had no criminal record.

At their house in June, Christina pulled out a folder stuffed with papers. "This is his life that we go with at every check-in," Christina said. She pulled out statements from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the district courts of Arapahoe and Denver counties showing that searches into any criminal record for Jorge turned up clean.

But he and Christina were never able to sort things out at the consulate, since, as Christina says, consular officials noted the issue with the car mix-up and said Jorge's file wasn't clean.

While Christina was a few months pregnant with her and Jorge's first child, he returned to the U.S. illegally in December 2007.

In 2008, Jorge was driving in Jefferson County when he crashed his car into a guardrail. Christina says the police detained Jorge for driving with an expired license, even though he didn't even have an American license that could be expired, since he used his Mexican license. After spending a few weeks in jail, Jorge was handed over to ICE and transferred to the immigrant detention facility in Aurora. He bonded out for $2,500 and has been in ICE's crosshairs ever since.

For years, Jorge was able to petition for stays of removal, each of which lasted a year. He had to check in with ICE periodically, but was always able to return home.

But in November 2017, Christina says, Jorge's petition for a stay of removal was denied. He ended up being granted a stay for a shorter period of time, since one of Christina's sons was having major spinal surgery in March 2018.

As Jorge's immigration status appeared to be headed toward increasingly shaky ground, the family started considering another option: entering sanctuary in a local church.

Sanctuary would provide a temporary reprieve for Jorge. ICE has a policy of not entering sensitive spaces, like religious institutions, which has led to multiple undocumented individuals living in churches throughout Colorado. All of the sanctuary efforts are coordinated by Jeanette Vizguerra, who currently lives in sanctuary in a Capitol Hill church, and the American Friends Service Committee.

For the Zaldivars, Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church was willing to open its doors. Diane Bassett, a member of the Montview congregation, was part of the team of a dozen-plus individuals who designed the church’s sanctuary policy.

“It sounds like a really wonderful, romantic thing to put somebody into sanctuary,” says Bassett, “In the long run, it’s so much more complicated than that. Historically, it doesn’t necessarily have a good ending. Sanctuary is not the answer to our questions and concerns. The answer, unfortunately, is immigration reform and changing things legally so people have a bat’s chance in hell of staying in the U.S.”

People in sanctuary have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for flouting immigration laws. But sanctuary at least offers a small number of undocumented immigrants the chance to stay in their home communities and be close to their families.

Jorge went to a check-in in June and was temporarily detained but then released by ICE after they realized his stay had a few days remaining, according to Christina. In the days leading up to his November 13 check-in, Jorge and his family decided against him entering sanctuary.

"He always chooses to do the right thing," Christina says.

Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney who is working on Jorge's case, is pushing for ICE not to deport Jorge while his immigration petition is still pending.

“Just because they can deport him doesn’t mean they should. There is no harm in letting Mr. Zaldivar remain with his family while his case makes its way through the review process. To the contrary, removing him now will have a devastating impact on his family and his legal rights," Lichter said in a statement for a press release regarding Jorge's impending deportation.

The day before the check-in, Lichter filed a petition for Jorge's immigration to be reviewed in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Colorado. The next day, after Jorge was detained, Lichter filed a motion for the court to order a temporary stay so that Jorge wouldn't be deported right away. A judge granted that stay, and attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice have until November 25 to file a motion for why they believe Jorge should be deported.

For now, Christina is only able to see Jorge through a glass wall that separates visitors from detainees in the Aurora facility.

"I didn’t plan for this in my life. I planned for retirement. I planned to grow old, and I planned to die with my husband. I didn’t plan to live in another country, because I have nothing there," Christina says.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.