Immigrants in sanctuary, and their pastors, look to President Biden for liberation
Three fathers. Three churches.
In Oct. 2017, three men, undocumented immigrants, took sanctuary in United Church of Christ congregations. They forfeited freedom to stay with their families. They have been fighting for that right ever since.
They and 34 others now look to President Joe Biden to allow them to walk free.
1,200 days and counting
Eliseo Jimenez went into sanctuary on Oct. 10, in Raleigh, N.C. Facing deportation to Mexico, Umstead Park UCC welcomed Jimenez and his family. Partner Gabriela and their two children — Allison, age 5 at the time, and Christopher, 4 — would come from Greensboro, more than an hour away, to stay with him as they could.
Lucio Perez took sanctuary nine days later in Amherst, Mass. First Congregational Church, UCC, had studied sanctuary but determined there were too many obstacles to deal with. When the father of three was about to be sent back to Guatemala, it became First Church’s “most important ministry.”
Three days later, on Oct. 22, Alex Garcia was welcomed into sanctuary during worship at Christ Church, UCC in Maplewood, Mo. The father of five young children, then 3 to 11, was scheduled to be deported to Honduras. The church took him in so he could stay near his wife, Carleen, four boys and a little girl.
More than 1,200 days later, they are all still there.
Trying to end deportations
Last week, the Biden administration brought them real hope for change.
On Friday, Jan. 22, the president’s executive order stopped most deportations for 100 days. With that, the Department of Homeland Security can focus resources on the southwest border during a pandemic. It will revise its practices for “a fair and effective immigration enforcement system focused on protecting national security, border security and public safety.”
As the order took effect, at least one sanctuary guest moved on. José Chicas, an undocumented immigrant who fled the war in El Salvador, left a Durham, N.C., Baptist church to go home to his family in Raleigh. He had spent three years and seven months in sanctuary.
Though there is no policy for what happens after the 100 days, Chicas is hopeful the president will find a solution for him and others in sanctuary — and make it a matter of policy.
Seeking ‘liberation from sanctuary’
On Tuesday, Jan. 26, two of the UCC sanctuary guests joined in calling on President Biden to do just that.
Garcia and Perez were among a dozen leaders of the National Sanctuary Collective who took part in a virtual news conference. The group said they want to be among the 11 million immigrants given a path to citizenship.
Rosa Sabido spoke first. After 30 years in the U.S., she said, she was forced to take sanctuary in a United Methodist church in Mancos, Colo., in June 2017. On behalf of the group, she thanked supporters and those who came to hear their stories.
“We are asking for liberation from sanctuary. We need to be included in the policy changes in immigration. We are tired of living in fear and confinement. We need to be heard,” she said. The group is asking the Biden administration for the same protections as those covered by the executive order.
The Collective is looking for a signed stay of removal and a pathway to citizenship. “A promise that they won’t be persecuted by ICE or detained as a criminal,” Sabido said.
‘Need the government to accept us’
Sabido said there are about 50 families with members living in churches. Most of them, like Jimenez, Perez and Garcia, took sanctuary during the Trump administration.
“Missouri is my home,” Garcia said. “We need more than 100 days for those of us in sanctuary. … We need the government to accept us and welcome us as they did here (for me) at this church.”
“My heart melted when Alex said that he just wanted the government to welcome him the way the church did,” said the Rev. Rebecca Turner, pastor of Christ Church. “That really says it all. Extravagant welcome, the way the Bible teaches. My prayer, and my work, is for the current administration to order a stay of removal for all those in sanctuary, and for them to have a pathway to citizenship.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied Garcia a request for citizenship under Trump. He said he hopes that will change under Biden.
Applying for a stay
Perez said he wouldn’t wish the way they are living on anybody. “I thank the pastor who opened the door to her church, because if sanctuary didn’t exist what would happen to us? Our families would be destroyed.” He sees the executive order as an opportunity the new president has given them.
“First Church Amherst continues to accompany Lucio in his long, faithful journey toward freedom and status,” said its pastor, the Rev. Vicki Kemper. “The moratorium gives us hope, but we must also listen to the lived experiences of Lucio and other sanctuary leaders who have had their lives torn apart by ICE actions.”
Kemper and the others say the moratorium doesn’t address the arrest or detention of undocumented people or what happens after 100 days. “So while we are hopeful, we are also cautious,” she said. “We remember that Jesus tells us to be wise as serpents, as well as gentle as doves.”
Next week Perez and his support team with file another application for a stay of deportation with ICE. He said the pandemic has had an impact on his family, but they are “still moving forward.”
Keeping family together
Eliseo Jimenez has been comforted during the pandemic by the presence of his youngest children, Umstead Park pastor Doug Long said. With the school shutdown, his 8-year–old son and 9-year–old daughter have been able to live with him at the church full time.
“For him, it’s made the last year almost bearable,” Long said.
Jimenez, in the prime of his working career and the primary support of his family, is focused on staying with them. The stress is having an effect, Long said, on both Jimenez and the kids.
But they see the president’s plan as good news. “The trajectory is a good one,” Long said.
Court blocks president’s order
A setback came just hours after the sanctuary leaders appealed for their freedom on Tuesday. A federal judge in Texas blocked the president’s plan to stop deportations. The temporary restraining order brings a halt to the Biden policy for 14 days.
Long remains hopeful. “My sense is the new administration is working as quickly as it can on multiplicity of issues. We feel confident that this will lead to a resolution for people like Eliseo and people in his situation.”
The National Sanctuary Collective said its representatives have already met, along with Church World Service, with members of the Biden transition team. They hope for future discussions.
Several members of Congress, led by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, plan to join them with a letter calling for immediate protections for families living in sanctuary and their eventual liberation.
“Lucio continues to bless us all with his unwavering faith,” Kemper said. “It continues to be an honor and a blessing to walk this journey with him and his family.”
‘I am not yet free’
“For me, I am not free yet,” Garcia said. “For me freedom looks like permanent protection. Like knowing I can live with my family forever without the fear of detention or deportation.”
“It’s been a joy to know Alex for these past three-and-a-half years, and a heartache to witness the cruelty he has faced from our government. He and his family have been traumatized by the threats of permanent separation,” Turner said. “I want real immigration reform that treats all people with dignity and a spirit of hospitality. We must stop treating migrants as criminals. We need to listen to their stories and their pain. It is our path to becoming a better nation.”
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