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After 9 months in sanctuary, Arturo Hernandez Garcia is going home

Arturo Hernandez Garcia stands with his family in front of crowd
Arturo addresses the crowd on the church steps as he leaves nine months in sanctuary. Photo: Gabriela Flora / AFSC
Children with signs supporting Arturo
People of all ages come out to show their support Photo: Gabriela Flora / AFSC
Reverend Mike Morran of the First Unitarian Society of Denver addresses the crow
Reverend Mike Morran of the First Unitarian Society of Denver addresses the crowd Photo: Justin Valas / AFSC
Arturo and family walking outside, flanked by media camera
Arturo and his family take their first walk outside together in almost a year Photo: Justin Valas / AFSC
Parishioners join hands in front of stained glass window
Members of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition host a vigil on the first day of a national three-day fast for just and humane immigration policies Photo: Gabriela Flora / AFSC
Arturo Hernandez Garcia and his family
Arturo stands with his family on the steps of the Unitarian Church shortly before entering sanctuary on October 21st, 2014 Photo: Gabriela Flora / AFSC

People of faith recognize small victory, say more needs to be done to prevent his deportation

For the first time in nine months, Arturo Hernandez Garcia was able to go home.

On October 21st, 2014, Arturo entered the First Unitarian Society of Denver Church, seeking sanctuary to avoid deportation. Today, after months of faithful advocacy by Arturo, his family, and the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition (MDSC), Arturo left sanctuary and was able to rejoin his family outside the church walls. 

Parishioners from seven member congregations were overcome with emotion as they learned Arturo was going home. He addressed the crowd, saying “I want to thank everyone who has supported myself and my family these last nine months. There is so much still to be done in my case and to change unjust immigration policies for thousands of families. As a community we have to speak up, we have to be visible if we want justice.”  

Dozens of supporters gathered on the steps of First Unitarian to hear the announcement, and committed to continue accompanying Arturo and the immigrant community. “Sanctuary is more than just a building. The transformative work of Sanctuary will continue in homes and streets, legislative hearings and pulpit moments,” explains Reverend Mike Morran. “Sanctuary demands we live out our most sacred beliefs in the dignity of all peoples and in following the prophetic witness of those most impacted.”

A partial victory

Arturo’s ability to leave the church represents a partial victory for him and for immigrant rights in Denver and across the country. “Every time we stand together and say no to detention and deportation, we are sending a strong message that change is possible, that justice is possible and that we are committed to standing with our sisters and brothers until the possible become real” said Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) committed that they will use their discretion not to deport Arturo when he leaves sanctuary. According to Arturo’s lawyer, Laura Lichter, “While we’re appreciative the review process resulted in some discretion for Arturo, the discretion offered does not provide permanent status or protection. We feel confident our next legal steps are solid and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to work with us as we go forward.”

Even as Arturo experiences some relief, thousands of immigrants in similar situations across the country will continue to fight to keep their families together until Congress changes U.S. immigration policies and ICE directs enough resources to the full implementation of discretion policies.

As Arturo was leaving sanctuary, he spoke about Rosa Robles Loreto, who has taken sanctuary at a church in Arizona. “As we leave First Unitarian together for the first time in 9 months, I’m thinking of Rosa Robles Loreto and many other families around the country. We stand with Rosa in calling on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to do more for Rosa so she can return to her life in Tucson.” 

The sanctuary movement

There is a long tradition of churches and faith communities in the United States providing sanctuary to people fleeing violence or avoiding deportation. In the early 1980s, the original sanctuary movement united churches and synagogues across the country in an effort to provide a safe place for people fleeing U.S.-backed violence in Central America.

The Sanctuary Movement has experienced a resurgence in recent years, in response to the record number of deportations (over two million under the Obama administration alone) and the Federal Government’s failure to enact just and human immigration policies.

The Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition (MDSC) is coordinated by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and made up of seven member congregations. The coalition asserts that “sanctuary is deeply rooted across centuries: to proclaim and protect the dignity and worth of every human being. Providing sanctuary affirms our solidarity with our immigrant sisters and brothers, and our conviction that families should not be torn apart by unjust policies.”

Members of the sanctuary movement do much more than provide space. They have been working hard at the local and Federal level to push for policy changes that address the bigger issues. In June, AFSC—in partnership with other faith based organizations and individuals across the country—joined Arturo and Rosa in a three day, nationwide fast to hold ICE accountable to the prosecutorial discretion priorities outlined by President Obama’s executive action.

“This is just the beginning for us,” said AFSC’s Jennifer Piper. “We will continue this work until no families are being forced apart by unjust policies.”

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