American exile

One Colorado man hides in a church basement to avoid deportation from the U.S. and his family

Matt Cortina

Arturo Hernández García is on the run in order to stay in the U.S.

On the day he was scheduled for deportation, Oct. 21, García moved into the basement of the First Unitarian Society of Denver. He cannot leave for fear that U.S. immigration agents will arrest him and deport him to Mexico, away from his wife and daughters.

García, 41, is one of seven immigrants currently claiming sanctuary across the country. Sanctuary has no legal bearing or definition, and in this case it means García will seek physical refuge in the church in hopes that it will protect him from government persecution. To that end, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy states that “enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches,” unless the person in question is particularly dangerous.

A network of area churches, the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, is providing García with food, legal help and financial assistance while his case gets resolved. The hope is that while García is in sanctuary, he will be granted an extension on his case so he can return to what remains of his normal life while officials determine his future status.

Jennifer Piper, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, is working closely with García and says sanctuary not only provides individuals a safe space, but a much bigger platform to call for change to immigration policy.

“[Sanctuary] is a faith-based response to immigrant leadership — that immigrants are the ones who understand best how our policies damage families and damage our communi ties and also understand best what the solutions are,” says Piper. “And our role as faith communities is to support their voice and leadership in looking for a solution that’s best for all of us.”

Piper says the church network fully recognizes that it is supporting a person who is wanted for arrest and deportation by the U.S. government, but that they are one of the few, if not the only, options for people who they believe have been unfairly targeted by the government.

“The whole idea is that the church enters into a little bit of the risk with the person who is facing deportation but also extends sort of the protection of the church to the person who is seeking sanctuary, which has really long roots in Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition,” Piper says. “It’s not just a building; it’s this whole idea of accompaniment.”

The Denver coalition began about a year ago when another immigrant to the U.S. was facing deportation. Six local church communities agreed to support a sanctuary for illegal immigrants facing deportation who met criteria including having a family in the country and a clean criminal record.

That first person has since won an extension on his case, and when García came to the Coalition in September, the framework for providing him sanctuary was already in place.

García came to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico in 1999 with his wife, Ana, and his 3-month-old daughter, Mariana. They soon had a second daughter, Andrea. García started a construction company in 2008, specializing in subflooring and ceramic tiles, which employed about 10 people every year.

But an altercation at a job site one day in 2010 pushed García and his family into what you’d call by default the American Nightmare — an arrest, racial profiling, lengthy litigation, major financial losses and ultimately deportation.

“All the years that I lived in Colorado, I never had any problems until 2010,” García says via an interpreter. “I had a problem at work with another guy. He accused me of something I didn’t do and I was arrested.”

The altercation involved a man who approached García after a brief verbal disagreement that looked like it might come to blows, he says. García pushed the man away, he says, and that was enough for police.

“After I was arrested by the police, then they passed me to Immigration and I was detained by Immigration. At that point Immigration didn’t know if I was innocent or not — my case hadn’t moved forward yet, it was still in the courts. I had to pay first a $10,000 bond to get out of jail and then a $7,000 bond to get out of Immigration,” García says.

After paying the $17,000 in bonds, and much more in lawyer fees, García was ultimately acquitted of all charges. Innocent. But ICE still wanted him out of the country.

“On the immigration side it’s been almost five years now that I’ve been fighting my case and all of that time I’ve had a lawyer but Immigration hasn’t wanted to stop my deportation … despite the fact I meet all the requirements for discretion in the Morton memo: I’ve been here for 10 years, I have a citizen child, I have a clean record, I pay taxes,” García says. “And my wife’s parents, her dad is a citizen and her mom is a permanent resident. We’ve been waiting on an application they put in for both of us since 2005 in order to be able to get [citizen] status but the application is backlogged.”

The “Morton memo” is a 2011 memo from ICE Director John Morton to department heads that outlines 19 factors designed to help authorities determine which immigrants in the system require priority action. In addition to the factors García mentioned, officials will also consider the person’s military service or that of his relatives, “ties and contributions to the community,” whether the person poses a national security threat, and the person’s pursuit of education in the U.S. The more positive outcomes on the 19 points, the more likely the person is to avoid prosecution.

“Even though I meet all of these requirements and everyone thinks I have a really good case, Immigration continues to insist that it’s not sufficient and that the suffering of my family is not extreme enough for them to cancel my order of deportation, and I’ve used all of the legal resources available to me at this point,” García says.

The financial toll the situation has taken on García and his family has been brutal, having to sell their house and one of their cars. He says his credit rating has tanked because he’s the only wage earner in the home, and they’ve had to use every means possible to pay legal fees.

“I’m the main support, the only breadwinner for our family so me being here [in sanctuary] means my brother is having to help trying to support my family,” García says. “Even before I entered sanctuary it had a huge impact on us because my wife has always worked at home [as a homemaker] and I always went out to work.”

But the impact felt by the Garcías is not just in the bank account, of course. His current living arrangements in the basement aren’t too shabby: a bed with a zebra print comforter, bright yellow and white horizontal striped wallpaper, a small TV mounted near the ceiling, a place to charge his iPad, food donated by the church coalition. But being away from Ana, Mariana and Andrea, though they visit after school on weekdays and stay over on weekends, has been a burden.

“It’s affected many aspects of our lives, especially now that the case is public and everyone knows what’s going on. It’s a lot of pressure on my wife and my daughters. It’s also affected our morale,” García says.

García’s friendly, tired face unwrinkles when he talks about his daughters.

“My oldest when she was in middle school, she received invitations to participate in a program through the University of Colorado because she had such great grades,” García says. “It’s a program that is supposed to motivate youth to attend college and she was really a part in that. I think that this process has affected her grades a little bit. She’s still doing well but not as well as she was before now that she’s in high school and I worry about that.”

Before entering sanctuary, García says he liked to take his family out to dinner and the movies, let his daughters shop in the mall. He believes they understand why he needs to live in the church basement, unable, for certain, to take his family out on the weekend, but isn’t sure if they get why going back to Mexico just isn’t an option for them.

“I think they understand the situation I’m in and why I’m here because they’re really smart girls,” García says, “but I don’t know if they fully understand the situation in Mexico, how unstable it is right now and how violent. Maybe we haven’t explained that to them as much.”

García says that the American per ception of Mexico, including the perception of his own daughters, is skewed because Mexican “politicians do a really good job of presenting to the international community that everything is just fine in Mexico.”

“Why not just go back, why not just take my family with me? It would be starting all over from zero again which we already did 15 years ago. Fifteen years of living here, building a life here. It’s true we still have some friends and family in Mexico, but we’d have to look for work and find a new place to live. My daughters would have to adapt to a culture they are not familiar with, an education system that works completely different. It would be really difficult to start over again,” García says.

And that’s the wrenching, answerless dilemma that faces millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. every year. And unfortunately, the situation is getting worse for immigrant families despite Washington rhetoric and fits and starts of immigration reform movements.

“I know Obama and the administration has said that they’re only deporting people who have very serious criminal records, but I don’t have any record at all,” García says. “And I think to Immigration it just doesn’t matter, they’re separating families every day. It’s more than 2 million deportations now since Obama became president and it just seems like Immigration doesn’t care. Their target is everyone.”

Through the end of 2013, the Obama administration has overseen the removal of 1.8 million people on immigration violations, and is on pace to deport more immigrants by the end of 2014 than George W. Bush deported in two full presidential terms.

ICE indicates that nearly two out of every three deportations is because the person has criminal charges, while the vast majority of the remaining deportations occurred within 100 miles of the Mexico border.

But department data also indicates that deportations of people with U.S.- born children is rapidly on the rise: 72,000 such people were deported in 2012, and about 200,000 were deported between 2010 and 2012. By comparison, only 100,000 parents of U.S.- born children were deported between 1997 and 2007.

García believes the average American just doesn’t realize how serious the issue has become for the immigrant community.

“If I hadn’t entered sanctuary, who would know that I was deported?” García asks. “They are deporting a lot of people in the dark of night and most people think, if they do see a story, they think ‘Oh, that’s because they have a record’ or they think ‘Oh, they’re not doing the right thing here,’ but that’s not the case in my case and that’s not the case in a lot of people’s cases.”

People who live and work within close proximity to immigrant families might have a better understanding of the issues they face, García says. In Colorado, immigrants and their U.S.- born children account for 12 percent of the population. About 33 percent of Colorado immigrants are in the country illegally, according to a 2012 Center for Immigration Studies report.

“I think people in Colorado understand that immigrants come here to be a part of the community and to contribute,” says García. “With rent and mortgages and food and clothing, the money that we make stays here and it flows within the Colorado economy and I think people here understand we’re a part of the community and not a threat.”

Economics are a factor, but Piper, who also served as García’s interpreter, says providing sanctuary is first and foremost a moral issue. And it is one with substantial precedent.

There have been three major sanctuary movements, Piper says: the first in the 1970’s to protect conscientious objectors from getting drafted into the Vietnam War, the second in the ’70s and ’80s wherein an “underground railroad” was established to get Central American refugees of civil wars through Mexico and the United States to Canada, whose government (unlike the U.S. and Mexico) was not allied with the Central American regimes that were creating refugees.

The third sanctuary movement is now, Piper says, and it started in 2007 with Elvira Arellano, a Chicago woman who lived for a year in a church before being apprehended on a trip to Los Angeles and deported to Mexico, where she still lives. When she was deported, the movement had to take a step back and rethink their methods. This latest new effort is being matched throughout the country, Piper says, with more cities and groups hopefully joining in the future.

So far, there have been three successful cases wherein a person was granted an extension or a stay on his immigration case after taking sanctuary. More information on the other six persons and their families who are currently being given sanctuary can be found at

García now faces uncertainty about his future. He acknowledges that “technically it’s possible they come in the church and detain me,” but hopes that ICE wouldn’t set a precedent by raiding the church to apprehend him. His petition to cancel his deportation — the one that his father-in-law submitted — could take up to another 15 years to be heard.

In the near term, it seems the best outcome might be that the government postpones his deportation date and provides a stay of removal.

In a statement to BW, ICE states, “Mr. Hernandez García has exhausted multiple avenues seeking relief from deportation and is currently an immigration fugitive with an outstanding deportation order. ICE remains focused on smart and effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of convicted criminals and egregious immigration law violators.”

“My belief is that I’m here for a reason and it all depends on Immigration,” García says. “I hope this gives them the opportunity to look at my case and to cancel my order for deportation and to stay with my family where I belong.”

“When Arturo says it’s up to Immigration, that’s the truth,” says Piper. “There have been cases when it’s the next day they granted relief, there have been cases when it’s been three months, and there have been cases when it’s been three years.”

And if, like millions of other immigrants, a stay is not granted?

“There’s not really a way once you’ve been deported to come back,” García says.


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