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Immigrant Shielded From Deportation by Philadelphia Church Walks Free

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Charles Mostoller for The New York Times

Originally published by NY Times

Facing deportation to Mexico and fearing separation from his children,Javier Flores Garcia took refuge last year in a Methodist church in downtown Philadelphia. Members of the congregation prepared a makeshift bedroom for him in the basement, and promised to give him sanctuary, no matter how long he needed it.

On Wednesday, after nearly eleven months, Mr. Flores walked out of the church for good, a rare winner among the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who have fought battles over deportation this year.

His case was resolved in an unusual way: He has been promised a special type of visa given to victims of crime who assist the police. But even so, Mr. Flores’s freedom gives the growing sanctuary movement, organized by houses of worship across the country to protect undocumented immigrants, a small victory in the face of a widespread federal crackdown.

President Trump came into office vowing to rid the country of millions of illegal immigrants, and immigration arrests have risen by nearly 40 percent in 2017, compared with the previous year, to a rate of almost 400 people a day.

Since Mr. Trump was elected, 34 people facing deportation have publicly taken refuge inside of churches, including four this week, according to the Rev. Noel Andersen, a minister of the United Church of Christ and the national grass-roots coordinator for Church World Service, an ecumenical human rights and refugee resettlement organization. So far, seven of those 34 have left their sanctuaries after winning relief from deportation, he said.

“These are not only our friends and our community members, they’re oftentimes our congregational members as well,” said Mr. Andersen, who helps coordinate the sanctuary coalition. “Usually, sanctuary is the last option.”

Mr. Flores settled into life inside the church, helping out with handyman tasks, cooking meals in the church kitchen, and praying in the magnificent Gothic sanctuary, both on Sundays and at times when no one else was there, his friends said. His young sons, missing him at home, sometimes stayed with him overnight at the church.

His stay in sanctuary was among the longest, but given that President Barack Obama also made extensive use of deportations, there are two other people still taking refuge after more than a year and a half. At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Andersen said, one woman from Guatemala who took refuge in July in a Pentecostal church in New Haven, Conn., had her immigration case resolved in less than a week.

This week, churches in Raleigh, N.C.; Meriden, Conn.; and Highland Park, N.J., announced that they were offering sanctuary to a total of four people. The New Jersey church took in a couple who say they could face persecution for their Christian faith if they were deported back to Indonesia. It is their second time in sanctuary in the same church, according to the pastor, Seth Kaper-Dale, an immigration activist who is now running for governor on the Green Party ticket.

It is the policy of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that churches, schools and hospitals are “sensitive locations” where immigration officers are not supposed to make arrests except in extraordinary circumstances.

So far, the “sensitive locations enforcement policy has not changed” under President Trump, said Jennifer Elzea, the agency’s acting press secretary: “I’ve not been aware of any instances in which we’ve entered a church or place of worship to conduct enforcement actions.”

Mr. Flores took sanctuary last November at the Arch Street United Methodist Church, one day before he was supposed to report for deportation back to Mexico. He had been living in the United States on and off since 1997, and had been caught nine times trying to cross the border illegally, immigration officials said. Mr. Flores said he had compelling reasons for doing so: a longtime partner, Alma Lopez, their two sons, and Ms. Lopez’s teenage daughter, whom he considers his stepdaughter, all lived in the United States. Mr. Flores supported them by working as an arborist.

“I’ve never brought drugs, I’ve never helped anybody else cross the border — my only crime is coming back,” Mr. Flores said in an interview in the church last December. “I came here for the love of my children.”

Despite his repeated violations at the border, Mr. Flores had a legal case worth pursuing, according to his immigration lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, because he was eligible for what is known as a U visa, given to crime victims who help the authorities catch and prosecute criminals.

Mr. Flores was attacked by two men wielding boxcutters in a parking lot in Bensalem, Pa., in 2004, and was seriously injured. While in the hospital, he helped the police identify the assailants and would have testified against them if there had been a trial. They pleaded guilty and were later deported, Mr. Gian-Grasso said.

Mr. Flores was notified last week that his own deportation has been deferred indefinitely, and that he has been approved to receive a U visa, his lawyer said, adding that such visas are good for up to four years and that Mr. Flores will have a good chance at receiving permanent residence after.

“What it means is he’s not under threat of removal imminently, so he can come out,” Mr. Gian-Grasso said. “He can get a work permit. He can be back with his family, and he has the opportunity to start living a regular life again, which is really all he’s ever cared about.”

Read more: www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/us/sanctuary-church-immigration-philadelphia.html

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