For the last 11 months, Javier Flores Garcia, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who has mostly lived in the United States since 1997, avoided deportation by taking sanctuary in a church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, he stepped out for the first time no longer afraid that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency would detain him.
Flores took refuge at the Arch Street United Methodist Church soon after President Donald Trump was elected, afraid that the new president would immediately act to deport all undocumented immigrants. At the time, he had a deportation order back to Mexico for the following day, after he had come back into the country nine times. Each time he came back to reunite with his family.
“I’m happy today and we are celebrating a huge victory,” Flores Garcia said in Spanish on a telephone press conference Wednesday afternoon after he left sanctuary. He received language translation help from an organizer with the advocacy group Juntos. “After so long, I can finally go back to my family.”
The ICE agency has long held a policy to avoid detaining immigrants at “sensitive locations” like houses of worship, schools, and hospitals, except in extraordinary circumstances. This is to ensure the presence of federal agents does not disrupt the daily activities at those locations. The Department of Homeland Security — the parent organization overseeing ICE and its border counterpart Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency — has yet to break this policy. Nevertheless, federal agents have detained immigrants near schools, off hospital grounds, and around church parking lots regardless of the president in charge.
Flores left sanctuary this week after being granted “deferred action” which legally grants him the ability to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation. During this time, he is also waiting for an immigration court to decide on the status of his U visa. Granted to victims of crime, Flores Garcia qualified for a U visa after he was stabbed in 2004 and helped law enforcement officials arrest the people who hurt him. The visa was granted to 29 percent of all U visa petitioners in the 2016 fiscal year and can take years to process.
“It was a life changing experience.”
In his 11 months holed up inside the church, Flores helped to paint rooms and set up meals for the homeless. He also thought often about his children who would come to visit him.
“The hardest thing was for me the suffering my kids had to go through — the psychological trauma,” Flores said. “It was a life changing experience… I got to help out and give meals to people who need it.”
Reverend Robin Hynicka, a senior pastor at the Arch Street church, said Flores “made himself a part of our community” by helping to build, paint, and repair the church. Hynicka pointed out that the church had no regrets in taking Flores for so long, despite receiving letters and Facebook messages decrying his stay.
“[We] would do it again,” Hynicka insisted on the press call, pointing out that it helped to build a “trusting relationship” between Juntos and the New Sanctuary Movement.
“If in the course of those relationships it’s something we can do together, we would do it again,” Hynicka added. “The room Javier stayed will remain open for when that happens.”
Since the 1980s, faith leaders have entrenched themselves in the “Sanctuary Movement,” when U.S. clergy harbored Central Americans fleeing civil war within church walls to protect them from being returned to deadly conditions. The movement has made sporadic comebacks since then, but had a resurgence in 2014 when numerous churches nationwide began taking in immigrants in response to then-President Barack Obama’s rising deportation efforts.
Flores is among a handful of immigrants who have taken sanctuary for many months. Another 34 immigrants facing deportation have taken sanctuary in a house of worship since Trump took office, according to Rev. Noel Anderson, a minister of the United Church of Christ and a national coordinator of the human rights group Church World Service told the New York Times.