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Mexican immigrant who claimed sanctuary reflects on nine months living in a church basement

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Matt Cortina

The television cameras started to leave after the prayer circle disbanded. One by one — the camera guy with the tiny bulldog of a man reporting; the camera guy of the pretty young reporter with perfect hair; the camera guy who knocked over an elderly woman with a cane to get a shot — they packed up and left.

Arturo Hernandez García, who lived in a church basement for nine months to escape deportation, embraced his wife at the top of the church steps where minutes before he announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had sent him a letter saying he was no longer a deportation priority. The victory was small, and García is in no way safe from deportation, but the letter meant he could return home. García took his two daughters, one in each hand, led them down the steps to the sidewalk, and the family walked around the block. It was a wonderful moment for the family, and the cameramen who hadn’t yet returned to their Channel X newsvans ran down the street to get the shot of a smiling family enjoying the fresh air together for the first time in nine months.

When the García’s returned to the church, the crowd had thinned to a few church members and two Spanish language reporters. Minutes later, García was back in the church, sitting in a dark conference room. The pits of his grey shirt were damp from the heat, and he looked tired. Tired, but happy.

García has risen to be somewhat of a symbol in the media. García became only the seventh immigrant claiming sanctuary when he moved into the First Unitarian Society of Denver last October. In Boulder Weekly’s coverage of the event, García’s story was used to highlight the history of the sanctuary movement, which began in the ’70s, but was receiving new momentum thanks to the ongoing treatment of immigrants from U.S. immigration officials.

In fact, García became such a symbol of sanctuary — and the immigrant rights movement — that Westword magazine put him on their cover in February, standing him in front of a stained glass window and putting bright light in front of him to insinuate that he was at least a martyr, if not a saint or Jesus himself.

García says he took a lot of guff from friends and family for that.

But back in the church, an hour or so after his big announcement, García reflects on his time in sanctuary — time he spent educating himself and learning to become, at least, a spokesman for the immigrant rights movement.

“The circumstances obligated me to learn,” he says through an interpreter. “Sometimes as immigrants, we’re a little bit passive. If we’re not the one in deportation, if we’re not the one fighting our case, we’re just at home with our families and not really involved in things. Having to defend yourself and your family is what makes you take that step to get involved.”

García says he learned about the politics of immigration, the history of the movement and how to speak to the media from talking to members of the church community, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and reading about the portrayal of immigrants in the media from politicians and news organizations.

He says more needs to be done not only for his own case, which continues by trying to push for a permanent stay of removal, but also with this new role as a public figure — a responsiblity he says he assumed the day he stepped into sanctuary. García says there is much more work to be done, and it’s all uphill.

“We’re in a moment where we really need to push,” he says. “I wish and I hope after this that I can try to get more of my community involved in this fight, to defend ourselves and our community, and to really push back and expose the fact that we are a business for this country and this country’s detention centers. That’s a fact. My case is public now, but there are so many other people’s cases that are hidden: people that are in the detention center right now; mothers and fathers who are being deported at this moment, leaving behind their children.

“It’s not worth anything — my case being public — if it doesn’t speak to the larger experience of the community. [ICE] is always saying they are focused on criminals and one of the reasons I entered sanctuary and keep fighting my case is because I didn’t want to be deported with that label. I’m not a criminal, and I wanted to make sure my daughters would be able to keep living in this country. There are thousands of people just like me who have been deported under the label of criminal.”

García was arrested after an altercation with a co-worker in 2010. A jury ultimately cleared him of all charges (after about $17,000 in legal fees and fines), but ICE still considered him a deportation priority because of the incident.

One such person García mentioned was Jose Luis Guerrero, who was deported this year after being taken at gunpoint at his Aurora home by ICE.

“I put myself in the shoes of someone like Jose Luis who not only experienced the humiliation of being deported but having to be deported under that label. That tag of a criminal has to affect you whether subconsciously or not,” García says.

(As an update on Boulder Weekly’s January story about the Guerreros [“A cry for help”], we have since learned that Jose Luis’ wife and five children moved back to Chihuahua, Mexico shortly after his deportation.)

The dichotomy between modest success — García’s letter that he is no longer a deportation priority — with the news that another non-criminal immigrant was deported highlights the need García says he feels to keep working with the immigrant community and its advocates to achieve more rights. He says one of the biggest obstacles to a better immigration system is politics, and that he “doesn’t really” expect change to come soon.

“We’re in limbo,” he says. “You can see it in the way in which the Republicans have placed themselves in opposition to any type of immigration reform, and that’s in spite of the fact that the majority of American citizens support immigration reform. It’s just a handful of politicians that can muddy the conversation and are standing in the way.”

It’s not just Republicans, says Jennifer Piper, who worked closely with García throughout the case and is program organizer for the American Friends Service Committee.

“I also think it’s sad because there are people in the Republican Party who don’t share those views who are silenced or fear being silenced, and there are also folks in the Democratic Party who haven’t shown any response to this issue, like Hillary Clinton at San Francisco. Like, which party are you with?” Piper says. “There’s a small amount of legislators who are very good at whipping up a fear-based frenzy.”

The incident in San Francisco Piper refers to involved comments from Clinton after a reporter asked her about her thoughts on an immigrant who had been deported five times, but who was charged with murdering a woman in June. San Francisco is a so-called “sanctuary city” and does not enforce federal immigration laws.

Clinton told CNN, in part, “Well, what should be done is any city should listen to the Department of Homeland Security, which as I understand it, urged them to deport this man again after he got out of prison another time.”

García says it’s alarming that Donald Trump, who made racist remarks about Mexican immigrants when he announced his run for presidency, is leading Republican polls.

“It’s so stupid that someone with such a big microphone that’s running for president would choose this moment to say such terrible things. We’re at a moment in time, when not just the immigrant community, but the black community is being targeted by individuals, and to speak those kind of hateful words into that space is a very dangerous thing to be doing.

“And Donald Trump’s, in particular, words are not in accordance with reality because he has clothing businesses in Mexico where he’s paying people three bucks a day and creating part of the problem. What good is it to have a job in Mexico if you have to work in abusive conditions for low pay? And the same thing is that there is this disconnect between what many in the Republican Party are saying and attacking our dignity, and at the same time they’re not doing anything to solve the situation. And the way that they support free trade and those types of agreements are what pushes us out of our countries of origin.”

Whether it is the media making a martyr of a man in sanctuary, or the media and politicians reducing an entire population of immigrants to a talking point and, soon, a stump speech tenet, what is clear is that there is a massive lack of communication.

Immigration reform is simply a moral imperative that has become a political debate. And the further this thing spirals out of control, the harder it will be to make meaningful change, Piper says.

“It takes time to get back to the reality,” Piper says, “and I think when immigrants are invisible from the debate, it becomes toxic really fast.”