By offering refuge on October 21 to a 15-year Denver resident and father of two who is seeking to avoid deportation to Mexico, First Unitarian Society of Denver became the first Unitarian Universalist congregation to house an immigrant as part of the new Sanctuary Movement, which sprung up this year in response to the national immigration justice crisis.
Arturo Hernandez Garcia, a married father of two daughters who runs a subcontracting business, was due to be deported to Mexico on October 21 after losing a four-year legal battle. With the support of others in the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith coalition launched this fall, First Unitarian Society offered him sanctuary.
As petitions and letters circulate on his behalf, Hernandez Garcia is living in a room in the basement of the church. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has stated that it will not enter churches to arrest people under most circumstances. There are at least five other people currently in sanctuary at churches across the U.S. hoping to avoid deportation and also to draw attention to immigrants’ rights. On October 27, after nearly two months in sanctuary at a Roman Catholic church in Chicago, a mother of two received notice that her deportation order was being set aside until further notice.
“We hope we are helping Arturo and his family, and in doing so, we hope we are making a larger point,” said the Rev. Mike Morran, minister at First Unitarian Society. “We are hoping to raise awareness in the public and in Congress that fixing the immigration system is urgent. This is not something that can be put on the back burner because real people, real families, are being profoundly affected.”
Hernandez Garcia is the first person in Colorado to claim sanctuary to avoid deportation as part of this new movement. First Unitarian is serving as his host congregation, but three other UU congregations, all members of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, are supporting him: Boulder Valley UU Fellowship, First Universalist Church of Denver, and the UU Church of Boulder. Others instrumental in creating the coalition and supporting area sanctuary efforts include the American Friends Service Committee and the Chadash Community United Church of Christ in Aurora, Colo., which has also agreed to be a host congregation. Mountain View Friends Meeting and Beloved Community Ministries of Colorado, a partnership of ten UU congregations, are also supportive.
Morran said First Unitarian Society, which has had a very active immigration justice group for over two years, held many meetings over a number of months to discern whether to become a sanctuary. Church members discussed everything from zoning laws to liability issues, and on June 1, 74 percent of the congregation voted in favor. By the time Hernandez Garcia sought sanctuary, the members of First Unitarian—which has a kitchen, shower, and other facilities—had refurbished a room in the basement for this purpose.
“This is a chance to live faith in a really powerful way, in a very risky and real and concrete way,” said the Rev. Kierstin Homblette, Beloved Community coordinator, who was key in forming the coalition and first approached First Unitarian about becoming a sanctuary. “It’s really different than signing a petition or writing a letter to the editor. Those are important, but this is the real heart of it.”
Hernandez Garcia first came to the attention of ICE in 2010 when he was arrested at work by local police during an altercation. All charges were dropped, Morran said, but ICE then began deportation proceedings. “I’ve worked for many years here in Colorado as a subcontractor,” Hernandez Garcia told publicnewsservice.org, through an interpreter. “I've paid taxes all that time and I've provided employment through subcontracting to other people. I haven't depended on the government at all. I think I've contributed quite a bit."
Morran said he has received a handful of emails from around the country condemning the church’s action, but he has been pleased by “phenomenal support” from the interfaith community. He said Hernandez Garcia, who is visited every day by his family, is doing well despite the fact he is unable to live with them or to work while he is in sanctuary.
Since taking Hernandez Garcia into sanctuary, the coalition has escalated its tactics to call attention to his case, Homblette said. A group of clergy took a letter on his behalf, signed by 81 clergy members, to the Denver office of ICE and briefly spoke with the agent assigned to his case, who said she has received many phone calls and emails on his behalf.
Hernandez Garcia’s lawyer sends an update each week to ICE on the numbers of new signatures to the petition, as well as the increasing number of media stories about the case, Homblette said.
In a press release October 28, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ (UCC) declared their support of the Sanctuary Movement and reaffirmed their commitment to immigrant families facing deportation.
Currently 17 UU congregations support sanctuary, according to the release, as do 11 congregations and the Southwest Conference of the UCC. Many UU and UCC congregations were active in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, offering support to Central American refugees who were denied asylum by the U.S. government, it noted.