For seven years in a row, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, 35, has gone to the offices of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement in Phoenix, Arizona, for her annual immigration check-in. Seven years in a row, she has met with ICE officials and gone back home to her family in Phoenix, despite being an undocumented immigrant with a felony conviction for having used a non-existent Social Security number to work.
But on Wednesday, February 8, Garcia de Rayos, a mother of two girls born in the United States, was arrested at her annual check-in and deported within 24 hours to Mexico despite efforts by hundreds of activists and protesters to stop it. Emphasizing that she has no violent criminal record, her lawyer, Ray Ybarra Maldonado, told reporters that her deportation was among the first under Trump’s crackdown on immigration. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton was one of many who spoke against the action, saying, “Rather than tracking down violent criminals and drug dealers, ICE is spending its energy deporting a woman with two American children who has lived here for more than two decades and poses a threat to nobody,” according to CNN.
Seven people were arrested trying to block the ICE van from taking Garcia de Rayos away, including Walt Emrys Staton, director of pastoral care and justice ministries at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Phoenix and a candidate for ministerial fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. The seven activists were held overnight in jail and released the next morning, said Staton, who was charged under municipal law with obstructing police duties.
Many advocates attended the Phoenix City Council meeting on Wednesday, February 15, to voice support for the immigrant community. They urged the council to approve a citizen’s petition to declare Phoenix a sanctuary city; the Rev. Andy Burnette, senior minister of Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, Arizona, said that he testified in support of the measure. The council voted it down, saying they would meet within the month to consider a legal challenge to SB 1070, a state law that requires city police to cooperate with federal officials in enforcing immigration law.
“For me,” said Staton, “it’s really important that the community, especially the undocumented community, sees that there are a lot of folks willing to put their bodies on the line, and willing to stand up and challenge the way law enforcement has been terrorizing immigrant communities. We have to do that with policy and advocacy and all the way to doing it directly with our bodies.”
Meanwhile, in the first major enforcement of President Trump’s January 25 executive order to crack down on undocumented immigrants, at least 680 people were arrested in a series of home and workplace raids in at least eleven states, according to ICE. While ICE stated that it was focusing on undocumented immigrants with criminal records, non-criminals also were arrested, according to the Washington Post.
In Denver, an immigrant rights and labor activist, Jeanette Vizguerra, took sanctuary in First Unitarian Society rather than show up for a routine check-in with ICE, fearing deportation. ICE confirmed that she her request for a stay of deportation had been denied. Vizguerra is now staying in an apartment in the church that she helped set up in 2014 for another undocumented immigrant, Arturo Hernandez Garcia, who lived there for nine months.
There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Deporting them was one of Trump’s major campaign promises.
Garcia de Rayos, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 14, was arrested in 2008 at work during a workplace raid instigated by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was ousted as Maricopa County sheriff in November 2016 after years of effort by activists and immigrant rights groups. Garcia de Rayos was convicted of felony criminal impersonation for using a false Social Security number—the number did not belong to anyone else, her lawyer notes—and in 2013, she was ordered deported but instead was placed under court supervision. ICE officials confirmed that she was compliant with her annual check-in, but, in a statement after her arrest, said that Garcia de Rayos’s immigration case had been through multiple levels of the immigration court system “and the judges held she did not have a legal basis to remain in the U.S.”
Garcia de Rayos and Puente Arizona, a migrant justice organization in Phoenix, had anticipated that things might go differently for her during this year’s check-in, her lawyer said.
Puente members accompanied her to the check-in and organized a rally outside ICE offices when she was arrested, which at its peak had about 200 people, according to the Arizona Republic. Protesters, including Staton, tried to stop the van carrying Garcia de Rayos from the ICE parking lot. One man chained himself to the vehicle’s front tire.
Despite the arrests, the protests were peaceful, according to news reports and witnesses. About 100 activists and protesters, including at least forty members of the Phoenix UU congregation, gathered outside the jail on Thursday night for a candlelight vigil in support of those arrested.
At a news conference in Nogales, Mexico, Garcia de Rayos said she remained in the U.S. “for a better future” for her two children, adding, “I don’t regret it, because I did it for love,” according to a CNN report on February 10. She also said, “I’m going to keep fighting so that [my children] continue to study in their country, and so that their dreams become a reality.”
The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, lead minister of Staton’s congregation, called Garcia de Rayos “a hero” for following the law and showing up for the annual check-in despite knowing there was a good chance she would be arrested and deported. Arpaio’s defeat was a hard-fought victory, said Frederick-Gray, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Arpaio, “and one message here is we have to fight and stay connected to the grassroots movements . . . so we can stand up in new ways to combat the deportations that are coming.”
Caitlin Breedlove, the Phoenix-based campaign director of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, said that the deportation of Garcia de Rayos should alert activists around the country that they must get organized immediately. Puente as a leading voice, Phoenix has for years worked for immigrants’ rights with the support of lawyers, activists, and elected officials, “but we were unable to stop her deportation,” Breedlove said. Those interested in protecting immigrants, including through the sanctuary movement, should move faster, she urged.
In the face of current threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, among others, the UUA and the UU Service Committee have issued a joint Declaration of Conscience affirming a “profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society.” UU congregations and individuals, and others, are invited to sign on to the declaration.