Colorado Man Enters Sanctuary in Denver Church to Avoid Deportation

Jorge Araiza Ávila, center, is now living in a church to avoid deportation.
Jorge Araiza Ávila, center, is now living in a church to avoid deportation. Courtesy of Makena Lambert
Thirty-one-year-old Jorge Araiza Ávila, who has been a Colorado resident for the past twenty years, is now living in a church in Park Hill to avoid being deported, local immigrant rights advocates have announced.

Instead of attending a check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in December, Araiza Ávila decided to take up residence at the Park Hill United Methodist Church. ICE has a policy of not entering "sensitive locations," such as religious institutions, leading a handful of undocumented immigrants to take sanctuary inside of Colorado churches.

"I made the decision to enter sanctuary because it’s very important to me to fight for my case, since I’m sure that I have been a good citizen, contributing every year with my job and always reporting my taxes, doing what I should do as a taxpayer in this country. But above all, the most important reason I’m here in sanctuary is for my three daughters and my little son," Araiza Ávila, who came here from Mexico, said in a statement announcing the move.

The Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah, which is housed in the same building, are part of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, a group of congregations that have committed to helping undocumented immigrants in Colorado avoid deportation.

"As Christians, the greatest commandments according to Jesus are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We stand with Jorge and his family because they are our neighbors who are in need. Park Hill UMC offering sanctuary to Jorge is one way we can tangibly show Jorge and his family that God values and loves them and all of us," Nathan Adams, the head pastor at Park Hill United Methodist Church, said in the announcement.

Three other people are living in sanctuary in Colorado with assistance from the coalition: Rosa Sabido in Mancos, Ingrid Encalada LaTorre in Boulder, and Jeanette Vizguerra in Denver. TIME magazine named Vizguerra one of the 100 most influential people in 2017. And, more recently, Encalada LaTorre has attracted the attention of influential politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who visited Encalada LaTorre while the congresswoman from New York was touring Colorado with U.S. Representative Joe Neguse of Boulder. Governor Jared Polis recently pardoned Encalada LaTorre for a previous criminal conviction that had made her a target for deportation.

Araceli Velasquez
, who had been living in sanctuary at Park Hill United Methodist Church, was deported in November 2019. That same month, Colorado resident Jorge Zaldivar decided against entering sanctuary and instead went to a check-in with ICE, where he was detained. Zaldivar has since been deported.

Araiza Ávila has lived in the U.S. since his parents brought him here from Mexico in 2000. He attended public schools in Denver and met his wife at Manual High School when they were both seventeen.

Araiza Ávila wound up on ICE's radar after receiving tickets for driving without a license; it wasn't until 2014 that undocumented immigrants in Colorado could apply for driver's licenses. ICE was also concerned that he had been a gang member, and he has been trying to avoid deportation since he was first detained by ICE in 2010.

According to his current attorneys, he'd previously had ineffective legal counsel in his dealings with ICE. "His immigration case was just so mishandled by so many different attorneys," says Aaron Elinoff, an immigration attorney who is now representing him.

On January 22, the Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals denied Araiza Ávila's latest petition to cancel his deportation.

ICE released this statement regarding Araiza Ávila on February 11:
Mexican citizen Jorge Eduardo Araiza, 31, aka Jorge Araiza Ávila, a member of the Sureno 13 gang, is illegally present in the U.S. and considered a wanted fugitive by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Araiza has multiple criminal convictions to include illegal weapons possession, illegal use of slugs, trespassing, among others, spanning several years.

Araiza illegally entered the U.S. sometime in 2000 and was initially encountered by officers with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) in September 2011 and placed into immigration proceedings. He failed to appear for his immigration court hearing in August 2012, and an immigration judge ordered him removed in absentia. He appealed the judge’s decision, and in January 2018, he was granted voluntary departure. Araiza failed to depart and filed a petition for review with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which was denied in January 2020. After exhausting full legal process in his case, Araiza is subject to a final order of removal and must depart the country.
Elinoff plans to petition the court to hold a rehearing on his client's case.

Update: This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. on February 11 to include ICE's statement.
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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.