Sanctuary Immigrant Leaves Denver Church After Nine Months

Photo: Arturo Hernandez Garcia
Arturo Hernandez Garcia sits in a basement room at the First Unitarian Church of Denver in March 2014. He sought sanctuary from deportation at the church for nine months.

An immigrant who sought sanctuary at a Denver church for nine months took his first steps outside Tuesday. Arturo Hernandez Garcia had been fighting an order that he return to his home country of Mexico. He left the church after immigration officials informed him that he’s no longer considered a priority for deportation.

Friends, family and supporters stood just outside the First Unitarian Society in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood to greet Hernandez Garcia.

"Nine months ago, this living community opened the doors for sanctuary," Arnie Carter, a church member and supporter, told the crowd as the moment arrived. "And nine months to the day we’re going to open them again."

He then led the group in a countdown of "Uno! Dos! Tres!" before Hernandez Garcia, and his wife and daughters emerged through the church doors.

Friends of the man hugged him before he even made it down the church steps.

"I’m taking a step forward and leaving sanctuary," he said through translator Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee. The group helped arrange his sanctuary.

Hernandez Garcia arrived in the U.S. on a six-month tourist visa in 1999, but decided to stay in the country after he got a work contract. He came to the attention of immigration officials in 2010 after an arrest. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in that incident, but was flagged for deportation back to Mexico. His half-dozen appeals for a stay of deportation were denied each time.

This week he received a letter stating he wasn’t considered a priority for deportation. That was a relief, but he added, "there’s so much work to be done for so many other thousands of families that are in the same situation."

The Rev. Mike Morran of the First Unitarian Society stood by his church's vote to provide sanctuary to Hernandez Garcia, and says they’re ready to take in another person facing deportation if called upon.

"More than bricks and mortar, more than a roof and walls, sanctuary is a movement of courage and community. Sanctuary is walking with our brothers and sisters in solidarity. Sanctuary is living in common struggle and hope. We celebrate today, but we are not finished," he said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that in 2014 about 316,000 people were sent back to their home countries. About 85 percent had a criminal record.

Hernandez Garcia doesn't belong to one of the priority groups for deportation, meaning he isn't a threat to national security or public safety. Even so, his attorney, Laura Lichter, said he has no guarantee that he can stay in the U.S. forever.

"The promise really never seemed to work out. And day after day what we found were that people just like Arturo were finding themselves arrested by immigration and put through a deportation mill," she said.

Hernandez Garcia doesn’t know if he’ll ever receive an official stay of deportation. But on Tuesday, he was happy to be with his wife and children walking down the street outside the church, assured he wouldn’t be immediately arrested by immigration officials.