Minerva Cisneros Garcia was once a prisoner among friends, embraced by strangers in a local church.
When the Winston-Salem resident faced deportation to her native Mexico, Congregational United Church of Christ of Greensboro provided her and her three sons a home in its basement for three months in 2017.
Garcia illegally entered the United States in 2000 to escape violence in her native Mexico and to find better opportunities to educate her older son, Eduardo, who is blind.
She was employed, had no criminal record and dutifully checked in annually with immigration officials, as required. In light of Eduardo’s needs, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2013 gave her a stay of removal from the country.
But four years later, for reasons that are still unclear, she was told on May 25, 2017, to leave the country by June 30 of that year.
So Congregational United converted church offices into bedrooms and provided sanctuary for Cisneros and her family.
The family brought along pet goldfish and Garcia made spare money by selling handmade jewelry that she created on a table in a corner of the room.
But Garcia could not set foot outside of the church. As an unwritten policy, ICE officials do not enter churches to make immigration arrests, but they may make arrests outside of them. Garcia could not visit her sons’ school. And church members manned the doors in round-the-clock shifts, in case ICE officials should show.
What may have been even worse was the gnawing uncertainty.
First, elation: An immigration judge vacated the deportation order allowing Garcia to begin the paperwork to seek citizenship and to leave the church sanctuary in October 2017, though she was required to wear a monitoring device on her ankle.
Then fear and disappointment: In November 2017, ICE suddenly started a new case against Garcia. No one knows why.
Finally, an immigration judge in Charlotte last week granted her permanent residency in a courtroom with a reputation for its toughness.
But, as the government assumes a more aggressive posture toward immigration, such happy endings are appearing more and more unlikely.
Two people are still living in sanctuary in Greensboro churches to avoid deportation: Oscar Canales took sanctuary in 2018 at Congregational to avoid the risk of deportation to El Salvador. Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, an undocumented grandmother from Guatemala, has been living in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church since 2017.
Like her friend Garcia (the two kept in touch by phone when both were living in churches), Ortega also received a sudden deportation order while checking in with ICE — in her case, in April of 2017.
According to Church World Service, they are among 46 immigrants in 15 states who have sought refuge in churches to avoid deportation. As of March of this year, NBC News reports, ICE arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions had more than tripled in the first 14 months of the Trump administration versus the final 14 months of the Obama administration, from 19,128 to 58,010.
Much has been said and written about the president’s harsher approach to immigration, particularly to refugees who seek asylum in the U.S. But many of these sad stories could be avoided if Democrats and Republicans in Congress would find the moral courage to address comprehensive immigration reform that addresses both border security and the humane treatment of desperate people.
They still haven’t, and decent men, women and children are suffering for it.