On the hit CW show Jane the Virgin, a recent episode revolved around Jane’s undocumented grandmother going to the emergency room and being told by hospital staff that they would call the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to come get her and have her deported. For the 11 million undocumented individuals living in the U.S., this story could be art imitating life. The expanded opportunities to stay here legally announced by President Barack Obama last November will be open to slightly less than half of them, and have yet to be implemented. In response, a number of churches have been offering themselves as sanctuaries to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Nine people entered such sanctuary in 2014. Some either won permission to stay in the U.S., and others left the churches, but three—Arturo Armando Hernández Garcia, Eleazar Misael Perez Cabrera, and Rosa Robles Loreto—remain there to this day, in Colorado and Arizona.
Living in Limbo
Mexican immigrant Arturo Hernandez entered sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver on October 19. He has lived in Colorado for 15 years, working in construction. His wife and two young daughters are still living in their apartment and are only able to visit him on weekends and evenings. Rosa Loreto, also from Mexico, has been in Tucson, Arizona since 1999 and has spent five months waiting in the Southside Presbyterian Church, since Aug. 7. Before entering sanctuary, she was detained for 53 days after a routine traffic stop. She is married and has two sons, and works and volunteers in her local community. Misael Cabrera, from Guatemala, was ordered to leave the United States after he was identified as an undocumented immigrant during a traffic stop. He has lived in the United States for nine years and took sanctuary in the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix. He would not be eligible for the Obama plan because he is a single man with no citizen children. However, he does have ties to the community because his parents and siblings live in Phoenix. He has also worked as a roofer for the last six years. All three have the support of politicians and clergy because none of them have a criminal record. After navigating the system for years and exhausting all other avenues to avoid deportation, they sought sanctuary as a last resort. “My attorney tried to appeal it and ICE denied it,” Hernandez explains. “The petition to reopen the case was then denied. A stay of removal petition was denied. After that they put in my final order by October 21, 2014. Three weeks before Oct. 21, I called the New Sanctuary group to get help. They explained to me how sanctuary works. So I am here in sanctuary to fight my case from the inside of the church.” “Thousands of immigrants like Arturo are in the same situation,” says Catherine Burns, a founding member of the New Sanctuary Initiative at First Unitarian in Denver. “They have lived peaceful, productive lives for many years in the United States, bringing up their children (some of whom are U.S. citizens), committing no crimes, working diligently and often supporting employees, and volunteering to improve their communities. President Obama has promised to practice discretion, to not bother immigrants like Arturo who enhance their communities, yet they are still being deported and separated from their young children and spouses.”
A Broken System
Although ICE’s official priority is deporting convicted criminals, many upright individuals are being ordered to leave. “The criminal justice and civil justice systems are totally intertwined,” explains Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizing director for the American Friends Service Center’s Immigrants Rights Program in Denver. “They fingerprint [people] and match them with immigration [records]. There is no innocent until proven guilty. If you are arrested for anything, Immigration is notified. They notify Immigration that you will be released and then hold you for 48 hours, even if you haven’t been convicted. Sheriffs hold people past their time of their release for Immigration to come and pick them up. You can be reported to ICE for anything from loud music to driving without a license. In Colorado, if you were suspected of being undocumented, they had to call ICE.” These holds are controversial, with Oregon declaring them unconstitutional. The prospect of being deported also means that undocumented crime victims and witnesses are afraid to come forward because they are concerned they will be reported to ICE if there is any official notice of their presence in the U.S. Once ICE obtains a hold on them, individuals who want to stay must prove that they will face extreme and unusual hardship if they are forced to leave. Arturo Hernandez and Eleazar Cabrera are the primary providers for their families. However, the judge in Hernandez’s case did not believe this was enough to be considered extreme hardship. “Enforcement varies from judge to judge,” says Piper. The undocumented are often told to gain residency through traditional avenues, but this process is cumbersome. For Mexican immigrants, the waiting time can be more than 20 years because the amount of immigrants admitted from different countries is based on a quota system. Hernandez’s mother and father-in-law applied for family-sponsored preference for him and his wife in 2005. Ten years later, a decision still has not been made. Also, children who have family sponsorship must reapply and start the process over if they turn 18 before a final decision is reached. Navigating the system is also expensive. Under President Obama’s executive order, undocumented minors can qualify for “deferred action,” which delays their deportation for two years, but it costs $465 to apply, and those who are approved must reapply every two years to extend it. People who try to appeal their final deportation orders must also hire attorneys to help them.
Short-Term Solutions, Long-Term Goals
Congregations and partners believe that they have a moral imperative to protect the undocumented and to keep families from being separated. While sanctuary is only a temporary Band-Aid solution, activists believe it is a way to deal with a broken system until significant reform can occur. Each case draws attention to the larger problems that immigrants face when applying for permanent residency, they say. In the 1980s sanctuary movement, when more than 150 churches sheltered refugees from war, dictatorship, and government-affiliated “death squads” in Guatemala and El Salvador, the Reagan administration had undercover agents infiltrate the movement. It prosecuted 18 activists from Texas and Arizona, including a minister from Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, on charges of smuggling illegal aliens. Lorry Thomas, the director of a shelter in the Rio Grande Valley named after murdered Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, was sentenced to two years in prison for helping a Nicaraguan get by a Border Patrol checkpoint. A 1991 lawsuit settlement and a 1997 federal law eventually allowed many of the refugees to apply for asylum and permanent residence. Today’s sanctuary movement has not encountered the same harassment, activists say. Law enforcement can legally take immigrants out of churches, but such raids might create bad publicity. Sanctuary activists also contend that because they are sheltering immigrants openly, they are not “harboring” them. “There has been no legal action from the government toward those hosting immigrants during the New Sanctuary Movement—the movement that began around 2006,” says Catherine Burns of Denver. We believe that this is because the New Sanctuary Movement is very transparent—we publically state that we are giving sanctuary, notify the authorities involved, and we don’t ‘hide’ the person involved. Since there hasn’t been a legal case, the issue of whether giving sanctuary is ‘harboring’ has not been legally resolved. We take the stand that since we don’t hide anyone, we are not breaking the law.” Karen Richter, director of adult and youth spiritual formation at the Phoenix church sheltering Misael Cabrera, echoes that belief. “The sanctuary movement interprets ‘harboring’ as hiding, she says. “When a person enters sanctuary (including Misael), there’s a very public worship service and press release. Misael’s case had some local coverage, both TV and newspaper. So there’s a sense that a church can’t be harboring someone, when we’ve been forthcoming about what’s going on and what the church is doing. “We would love for a thousand congregations to do the same thing, whether it is offering or supporting sanctuary or just talking about it,” she adds. “We need to think about what the response of people of faith and conscience should be. What response do we need make to our neighbors feel welcomed?”