April 19, 2017 News » Cover Story

Progressive churches prepare to protect immigrants in the heart of Trump country 

Not in our house

click to enlarge Declaring sanctuary is more than symbolic & it's a practical commitment to do everything it takes to shield someone from deportation, even if armed agents with guns show up. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Declaring sanctuary is more than symbolic & it's a practical commitment to do everything it takes to shield someone from deportation, even if armed agents with guns show up.

The squawks of young children punctuate a stream of '90s-era pop.

At the McDonald's at Academy and Astrozon boulevards, kids in the PlayPlace glide down the tubular slide and bubble up from the ball pit. Occasionally, one stomps the jangly footbridge to see if it'll rebound back up.

It's a weeknight treat for these young ones, but on the restaurant side, their mothers are in far less jovial spirits. They're reckoning with the possibility that, any day now, they'll be forcibly removed from the country, unable to reach their children stranded back at home in Colorado Springs.

Looking through a transparent pane at their kids, they imagine a far more menacing divide — a hulking concrete wall, armed agents with emboldened powers and the unmasked hatred of neighbors they've lived amongst for years.

Back in November, President Donald Trump reiterated his promise to ramp up deportations, saying he'd only target "criminal aliens," or, as he likes to put it, "very bad dudes."

"What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate," Trump told 60 Minutes.

Deporting criminals is not a departure from his predecessor's policy. During the Obama years, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) focus was purportedly on removing undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, but people with very minor infractions often got swept up, leading to a record number of deportations.

A 2014 DHS memo spells out the Obama-era policy. First priority for removal were convicted criminals, public safety threats or anyone apprehended at the border for crossing without inspection. Second priority were those convicted of a "significant misdemeanor," caught in the U.S. after having been removed already or found to be abusing any visa program. Third priority was a catch-all category including those issued a removal order after Jan. 1, 2014.

But Trump's guidance, issued in January, upended the country's enforcement. That's because it defined "criminal" broadly enough to include everyone in the country without authorization — like, say, all the women around this table.

"Under the executive order, [U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement] will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement," a DHS fact sheet notes. "All of those in violation of immigration law may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States."

But, even as the U.S. becomes less and less hospitable to non-citizens, violence and poverty in some South and Central American countries has continued to escalate, leaving their people without a safe place to live.

Huddling around a table, the women at the McDonald's trade stories from the recent news cycle of a dad who got detained after dropping his kids off at school and a young activist who was picked up after speaking out at a press conference. These stories hit eerily close to home for them, so they're strategizing about how to avoid such a fate themselves.

Their biggest concern, should they get deported to Mexico, is how to care for their American kids long-distance. The de facto leader of the group has passed around forms that, if filled out and notarized, would tap someone with lawful immigration status as a substitute parent.

"Basically, the documents say that if I get picked up and put into [deportation] proceedings, I give this person the right to take care of my kids," says a woman we'll call S.H., speaking through an interpreter. "There are directions in there for parenting, like this is where they go to school, this is where they go to activities, this is what food they should eat."

Contemplating the prospect causes a collective squirm.

"That's why most of us haven't filled them out yet," S.H. adds, looking down at the table. "Even though it's just temporary, while we figure things out."

This gathering was part of an ongoing effort to organize the immigrant community for safety and stability under the Trump administration. We agreed not to use the women's full names or name their organization in case immigration officials try to use the information. Translation throughout the reporting of this story was provided by Siena Mann, a paralegal at a local immigration law firm.

click to enlarge Smiles are known to break out at this group's otherwise serious meetings. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Smiles are known to break out at this group's otherwise serious meetings.

In spite of communication barriers, the mothers are keen to share stories about the day-to-day reality of living "illegally" in the Springs.

Many aspects of life that are otherwise routine for those with proper documentation were a hassle for them long before the recent transition of presidential power. Without the proper ID, they've been denied a visitor's pass to a child's school and a card for the public library.

Trump's opponents argue that his rise to power has unveiled a naked and ugly racism toward Mexicans in particular and people with brown skin in general. These women can attest to that, sharing stories of dirty looks in the grocery store and vitriolic comments online. They've weathered harassment for not speaking English and beat back nasty stereotypes daily.

"We pay taxes just like everyone else," S.H. says. "People don't understand."

"And it's not that we don't want to learn [English]," O.A. chimes in. "I used to take classes, but I'm a single mom with two kids, so I work all the time and I need the money to pay for bills. It's just hard."

And then there's the question they begrudge most: "If you've been in the country for decades, why don't you just straighten out your status already?"

"It's not like we're 'illegal' by choice," says S.H. "You can't just get papers. All we did is come here because there's nothing in Mexico — no jobs, no education, no opportunity. All we want is those things for our kids."

The only kid at the table, 8-year-old Daniel, perks up from his perch on his mother's lap. He's eager to say his piece, having heard it could appear in the newspaper. "Mostly I'm scared when I take tests that ask you if you're white, black or Mexican," he begins in English, which the group understands well enough. "I don't know if I check the box, will she be gone? ... If they took my mom and dad, I'd just be here with my [3-year-old] brother."

These women weren't friends at first. Rather, word of mouth brought them to S.H., who had learned from organizers in Pueblo how to help immigrants navigate the mind-numbing process of obtaining driver licenses. A state program that allowed those without proof of legal residence to obtain licenses, launched in 2014, is underfunded and understaffed — the result of partisan bickering in the state legislature. (This could be the year a legislative fix to the program becomes law, as immigrant rights groups have been advocating for years.)

S.H. started by helping women obtain their licenses. Then she began helping husbands, siblings and friends do the same. From there, a network naturally formed and began taking up other initiatives on behalf of the immigrant community. At first, meetings would attract just a few people. But, as the group became known for its success in securing driver licenses, attendance grew to over 200 on some occasions.

The group joined the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), which works to make this an immigrant-friendly state through community organizing, civic engagement and political advocacy. Now, in addition to the DMV-related work, the group also documents racial and labor abuses, encourages the El Paso County Sheriff's Office not to collude with immigration enforcement ("Executive (Dis)order," News, Feb. 8), and puts on "know your rights" workshops that teach participants what to do if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents come knocking.

But the women know that demanding a judge-signed warrant and access to an attorney can only get them so far. At some point, they could get handed that dreaded deportation order. And then what?

The group does have a tentative strategy, but it requires serious forethought, organization and courage.

The women could, as a last resort, take refuge in one of the few places that ICE has traditionally respected as sovereign. Such "sensitive locations" include churches, schools and hospitals. Though there's no statute that prevents ICE agents from conducting raids in those places, it is department policy, spelled out in an internal memo. The unofficial pact could evaporate on a whim of the executive branch, but for now, churches, schools and hospitals may be the only truly safe spaces for immigrants facing deportation.

Taking sanctuary, as it's called, is a bold move, to say the least. But, the women say, there's very little they wouldn't do for their children.

"When I think about the options of living in church or getting sent back to Mexico," says M.C., "I'd be all alone there. I have to be with my kids." Perhaps unconsciously, her arms tighten around her son Daniel, who's absentmindedly picking at a communal tray of french fries. "Of course I'd pick the church," she adds.

Trouble is, living in a church is no casual matter. Until now, the women have only discussed it with the congregation at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Spanish-language Catholic church out east on Pikes Peak Avenue that's not properly equipped to be a host. Other than that, language has been a barrier to approaching other churches, as have trust and familiarity.

click to enlarge Candace Datz - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Candace Datz

Those barriers, however, are starting to bend, thanks to a new connection they've made with Candace Datz, youth minister at First Congregational Church. Datz wants her church, already an "open and affirming" congregation with socially progressive values, to consider laying out the welcome mat for immigrants in need.

Because doing so would entail some weighty legal, financial and political considerations, "declaring sanctuary" will require congregation-wide approval. That kind of vote is still a ways away, as conversations about it are still in the introductory phase. But, church leadership supports the initiative, as two in their ranks have direct personal experience with immigration, activism and sanctuary.

Thus, Datz has put out a call to gauge other churches' interest in partnering.

For inspiration, Datz need only look about 70 miles to the north.

The First Unitarian Society of Denver, located in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood, housed an undocumented man, Arturo Hernandez Garcia, for nine months before ICE decided he was no longer a priority for deportation. Then in February, the church declared sanctuary again, this time for Jeanette Vizguerra — a 45-year-old mother of four, longtime labor activist and outspoken immigrant advocate who took refuge after ICE prepared to deport her after she had lived in America for two decades.

click to enlarge Rev. Nori Rost - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Rev. Nori Rost

She's living in the church now, in a high-stakes test of ICE's continued commitment to respecting "sensitive locations" in the Trump era. Really, what's going on in the basement of the First Unitarian Society of Denver represents the vanguard of a nationwide movement to keep families together by any means necessary.

Vizguerra's case is years in the making. In fact, ironically, she helped develop the sanctuary coalition in Denver that's now supporting her. A co-founder of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, Rev. Anne Dunlap jokes that she's Vizguerra's personal pastor, but what she means is she's been there every step of the way as a spiritual mentor, legal advocate and friend.

"She never thought she'd be the one to need it," Dunlap told the Indy by phone. "I think what's hardest for her right now is not being able to go to every march, every rally. We've moved some meetings to [the church] so she can keep organizing her community from there."

Since Vizguerra took up sanctuary — in dramatic fashion after evading ICE's awaiting handcuffs — the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition has been fielding nonstop calls from people all across the country seeking advice on how to form copycat coalitions in their own cities.

"Tucson, Portland, Philly, Chicago," Dunlap counted off, "Oh! — and Candace [Datz] in the Springs."

click to enlarge S.H. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • S.H.

Counseling is tricky, she explains, because she has to convey both the urgency of readying should someone need sanctuary tomorrow and the deliberateness with which preparations ought to be made.

"What happens if [ICE agents] were to come to your church with a warrant?" Dunlap asks, as example of the latter. "You're not going to honor it. But what happens when you refuse? If they get in, how do we sneak you out the back door?"

Letting that scenario sink in, she underscores it, saying, "we've got to be realistic here about what the risk really is, so if people aren't ready for those questions they might not be ready to be a sanctuary church."

On the other hand, Dunlap urges churches to commit — and commit fast. "Every church is different, every polity is different, but we don't have time for a whole lot of process around a decision like this," she says. "White churches, especially, can take this on."

Back in Colorado Springs, Datz has gathered a group of about 16 clergy, churchgoers and other activists — notably most are white — in First Congregational's meeting room.

"So I envision this as a 'where are we?' and 'what's happening?' kind of meeting," Datz prefaces.

click to enlarge Vicki Witte - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Vicki Witte

The group is gathered to discuss forming a coalition that would support whichever church (or churches) decide to offer sanctuary.

Some church representatives came to the meeting in an official capacity, some as lay people. Introductions reveal an array of circumstances. One church is making renovations and gearing up for a congregational vote. Another is just a step behind. Another has got their backs, but can't itself offer housing. Another could be persuaded. A fifth church won't provide sanctuary but could provide funding.

The furthest along is the downtown All Souls Universalist Unitarian church, home to an open-minded, non-denominational congregation led by activist Reverend Nori Rost.

"I thought about [offering sanctuary] for years, thinking 'Oh, that'd be good,'" Rost says. "But in the wake of this new regime, I think we all feel more urgency." She likens the motivational effect of the recent presidential election to that of the 1992 passage of Amendment 2 — a popularly approved amendment to the Colorado constitution forbidding any law, rule or policy that recognizes LGBT residents as a protected class. "All Souls grew during that time because people could no longer be on the fence about their gay uncle or lesbian daughter, so they were leaving other churches over their hateful rhetoric and coming here," Rost recalls. "This election was a wake-up call too."

All Souls will hold three or four forums on the matter before taking a congregational vote on May 21. The next one, open to anyone who's interested, is on April 23 at noon.

click to enlarge O.C. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • O.C.

"I don't feel comfortable asking the congregation sooner, because there are still so many questions that need answering," Rost says. "This isn't something we'd enter into lightly. To take a stand like that is to be taken very seriously, because we need to be able to say, 'We've got your back,' and really mean it."

Back in First Congregational's meeting room, it's become clear that one, maybe two, churches may offer physical space. The next question: What can be done to support their efforts?

Groceries, child care, transportation and money were the more obvious answers, but legal services too, someone suggested, could help keep someone from needing sanctuary in the first place. Trouble with that, though, is that you can count the number of bona fide immigration attorneys who do removal defense in this region on one hand — so retaining, let alone affording, them can be tough.

The only nonprofit offering pro bono case work to low-income families between Denver and Pueblo is Catholic Charities. "We are WAY past capacity," writes Eric Pavri, one of three attorneys handling immigration services there, by email. "Many late nights in the office, and we are being forced to turn people away because we simply cannot handle the volume and still maintain our quality of work."

click to enlarge Siena Mann - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Siena Mann

Part of the reason for the overload is that unlike criminal court, there's no right to an attorney in immigration court. "There is no equivalent to Legal Aid or a Public Defender's office for immigration law," Pavri wrote, adding that without adequate legal services, "immigrant communities [risk] facing the extremely daunting, confusing processes of submitting forms and evidence by themselves, and sometimes getting taken advantage of by businesses that do not have licensed attorneys or [Department of Justice]-authorized legal representatives on staff (and are thus operating illegally), but who sell immigration assistance to customers and often screw up their cases horribly."

Pavri sometimes refers clients to local attorneys with the Joseph Law Firm, including Alex Shiras, whose caseload has swelled too. In a private practice, he can only accept clients who can pay. (Same is true for the six other immigration attorneys in town.)

Occasionally, Shiras will accept pro bono cases, particularly for vulnerable victims of abuse, and 95 percent of his clients are on a payment plan. All that is to say — immigration attorneys aren't exactly in this to make money.

"Everyone's stretched super thin," Shiras reports, between meetings. "And we're seeing people drive far to get to us, from Telluride, Durango, Trinidad, Salida, western Kansas, northern New Mexico ... There just aren't enough lawyers in this field."

click to enlarge S.J. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • S.J.

Even if there were, the law they have to work with is also insufficient. There is no "path to citizenship," as it's called, for most immigrants, just a delicate and dizzying maze of bureaucracy. Calls on Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform that accounts for the millions of undocumented immigrants, some who have spent their entire lives in America, have gone unheeded for decades now. Absent legislative action, the primary tool for tweaking immigration policy has become executive order, through which the president can guide DHS's enforcement priorities, as Trump has done. Where the current administration is charting more extreme territory, however, is in their attempted coercion of local law enforcement agencies and criminal prosecutors to get into the deportation game.

For now, the Springs' budding coalition is focused on relationship-building between citizens and non-citizens.

"It's so hopeful to hear that others want to support us," S.H. said during her first conversation with Datz about working together. "The fear is still there, but to know someone else in the city is trying to help ... "

Neither woman could fully understand the other's words, but their mutual tears and spontaneous embrace indicated that something was shared nonetheless.

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