Arturo Hernandez has a double bed, a space heater, a couch and donated food in a church’s basement, and plans to stay there for as long as it takes until he is allowed to live in the United States. The 41-year-old man from Mexico sought sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver Sunday to avoid deportation.
Immigration officials do not arrest individuals in sensitive locations like churches or schools. Hernandez, who entered the United States in 1999 on a visa and stayed after it expired, became known to authorities after he was brought to trial following an altercation at his job site. He was found innocent of the charges, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement later issued an order of deportation.
"I want the public to know about my case. There are so many families just like mine that have come here to work and look for a future for our children. ... We are a part of this country and not a threat," Hernandez said at the church's welcoming ceremony. He left his wife and two daughters Sunday to live at the church until his case is resolved.
Hernandez is the first person to claim sanctuary in Colorado; however, there are five other individuals across the United States in the same position. At least 28 U.S. churches have vowed to grant sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Fifty-two others support the New Sanctuary Movement -- the rebirth of a stance first taken by U.S. churches in the 1980s to help Central American immigrants who were denied refugee status. Today, churches are expecting many more immigrant families may choose sanctuary especially after President Barack Obama decided to delay any executive action to hold off deportation.
“These are upstanding, law abiding people that came here for a better life and have worked and paid taxes for that period,” Jim Harlin, a member of the First Unitarian Society of Denver’s Immigration Justice Project, which helped organize Hernandez’s sanctuary stay, told International Business Times. The church had previously committed to acting as a sanctuary for people who need it. So when church organizers heard of Hernandez’s plight, they were ready.
“We need a system that will allow them to stay legally and to allow workers to come in when the U.S. needs them,” Harlin said.
Making the decision to claim sanctuary isn’t easy. Individuals must remain on church grounds, which often means they can’t go outside. They are separated from their families who undergo financial strains as a result. It can be lonely, isolating and stressful.
“I think it’s scary for people,” the Rev. Eric Ledermann of the University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona, told IBTimes. His church is currently housing Luis Lopez Acabal, a Guatemalan man who sought refuge to avoid deportation Sept. 5. “It brings spotlight to someone who was living in the shadows.” Ledermann says families of the individuals involved have been threatened with deportation as well.
Besides Acabal, Arizona churches are currently housing two other individuals. Rosa Robles Loreto moved into Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson Aug. 7. She has lived in the U.S. since 1999. Her husband and two sons are also undocumented. In 2010, she was detained after she was pulled over in a traffic stop and spent nearly two months in a detention center before she was released. A deportation order was issued in July.
Francisco Perez Cordova has been living at St. Francis United Methodist Church in Tucson since Sept. 25. Cordova has lived in Arizona since 1996. His five children are American citizens. His case was opened four years ago when his brother-in-law called police to report a burglary. When they couldn’t provide papers, border agents were called. Cordova said his attorney made an error that led him to be placed in removal proceedings. He had been living under the threat of deportation since January.
In Chicago, Beatriz Santiago Ramirez claimed sanctuary at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission on Aug. 11. Originally from Mexico, Ramirez has been living in the U.S. for 11 years. She was a victim of sexual assault who cooperated in the criminal investigation against her attacker. This should make her eligible for the U visa, which is granted to undocumented immigrants who can help law enforcement prosecute a crime, but a public official has not confirmed these facts, advocates for her case told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Francisco Aguirre took refuge at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, Sept. 19. That day, federal immigration agents came to his home to deport him. More than 30 people gathered outside his apartment to prevent the agents from doing so. They eventually left and the nearby church stepped in.
“I was out of town and I got [a] phone call,” Pastor Mark Knutson of Augustana Lutheran Church told IBTimes, recalling the moment he learned of Aguirre’s situation. “I had to say yes in that moment. If I had to bring a meeting together he would have been deported in a moment.”
Within an hour Aguirre was brought to the church. For the first couple of nights he slept in the sanctuary itself. The congregation created an apartment for him in the church’s fellowship hall. While he can’t go outside, Aguirre keeps himself busy by assisting in worship services, organizing meetings surrounding his case and making signs for immigration rallies. He says he will continue to stay in the church until he is granted a U visa.
Originally from El Salvador, Aguirre came to the United States nearly two decades ago. He faces deportation for an old drug conviction and a previous deportation 14 years ago. Since then, he has become a labor activist in his community, founding nonprofit Voz Workers' Rights Education Project to help male Latino immigrants find work in Portland.
“Francisco is the most peaceful person you’ll ever meet,” Knutson said. He adds since Aguirre’s arrival, more immigrant families have approached him explaining their precarious circumstances. “Now they know there might be this option,” he said.
For those waiting to be given the chance to live in the U.S. with their families, many look to Daniel Neyoy Ruiz. Originally from Mexico, Ruiz claimed asylum at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson for one month last May before he was granted the right to stay. A resident of Tucson for 14 years, his life took a turn when he was pulled over at a traffic stop.
“It’s one person, one family, but it speaks to the bigger story with immigrants in this nation,” Knutson said about Aguirre’s case and those like him. While churches like his own could face security risks and potential backlash from the congregation, he says it comes with the territory.
“You can’t have fear in these things. You have got to do this with faith, hope and trust it comes out well,” he said.