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Undocumented Father Finds Sanctuary in Denver Church to Fight Deportation to Mexico

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Broadcasting from Denver, Colorado, Amy Goodman visits the First Unitarian Society Church to meet Arturo Hernández García, an undocumented immigrant and father of two. Since October, García has sought sanctuary at the church as he fights his deportation. We also hear from his nine-year-old daughter Andrea, a United States citizen. Her status means he may be allowed to stay in the country under President Obama’s new deferred action program starting in May — if he is not deported before then. We also hear from Beth Chronister, assistant minister at the First Unitarian Society Church in Denver, and activist Jennifer Piper of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, who helped García enter sanctuary.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Denver, Colorado, from Denver Open Media. When I flew in to Denver yesterday, on Thursday, I went directly to the First Unitarian Society Church to meet Arturo Hernández García. He’s an undocumented immigrant and father of two girls. Since October, he has sought sanctuary at the church as he fights his deportation. I also met his nine-year-old daughter Andrea, who’s a United States citizen. Her status means he may be allowed to stay in the country under President Obama’s new deferred action program starting in May—if he’s not deported before then. Andrea was with her father when I went to interview him last night.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just arrived at the Unitarian Church in Denver, and we’re coming to see Arturo Hernández García, who has taken refuge here. He’s taken sanctuary here, the first one to do this in Denver since the 1980s.

Hi, I’m Amy Goodman.


AMY GOODMAN: Good to meet you.

Can you tell me how you ended up living in this church?

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: It is hard, because I have a long time in here. I have 115 days already.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you come here?

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: Because I am risk to deportation. October 21st, I have my final order for deportation. And the reason I’m coming here is because I want to fight my case.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me what happened? How did you end up going into deportation proceedings? You had a tile business?

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: Yeah, I’m working on constructions, usually big constructions like apartments, 100, 200, 300 apartments, and hundreds of people working in there. And I had trouble with one person, and I have that discussion with him. And they called the police, and the police, they arrest me. And after that, immigration put—the hall, immigration hall.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened after that?

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: I’m be in detention center for immigration for 15 days. And I pay a bail bond. I am a good person. I am working hard here by 16 years in Colorado. I never be in trouble. I never be arrested. I never stay in jail before, here or in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: You had your two children here in the United States?

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: I have one daughter that is 15 years old. She was born in Mexico. And she’s in DACA. It’s the deferred action for students. She’s now get a—permits job for her. And I have Andrea, is nine years old. She’s a citizen.

AMY GOODMAN: So what has it been like for you? You’ve been here for many months now, for November, December—for four months.

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: Yeah, three months and a half already. It’s hard, hard for me and for my family, too. I want to come back in my life, normal life, and come back to work and still in home with my daughters and my wife.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re here in the sanctuary with Arturo Hernández García, and his nine-year-old daughter Andrea has just joined us. Hi, Andrea.


AMY GOODMAN: Did you come here—do you come here after school?


AMY GOODMAN: What grade are you in?


AMY GOODMAN: Fourth grade. How do you feel about your father living in the church?

ANDREA HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: Sad. I want him to go back home with us.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you hoping for your father?

ANDREA HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: For him to go home and to give him a stay, for ICE to give him a stay.

AMY GOODMAN: For ICE to give him a stay. Did you also go to Washington, D.C., with your mother and your sister?


AMY GOODMAN: What did you do there?


ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: With the officers, ICE officers.

ANDREA HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: —with the ICE officers and—


ANDREA HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: —Homeland Security, and we were telling them that we wanted our dad to go home with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it will happen?


AMY GOODMAN: We’re standing in the sanctuary, and behind you is a banner that says “All souls are sacred and worthy. There is unity that makes us one.” And we’re standing in front of the organ.

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: We come here, United States, to work and the future for the family. We are not criminal. It’s not true what the people, the government say on TV. So, I come here to, yeah, like I say, just to work and a better future for my kids. And I’m contributing for the stay. We work and pay taxes. And so, everything I do, I do for my family, so…

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to thank you for taking this time to talk to us, Arturo, and your daughter Andrea. We’re here at the Unitarian Church in Denver, where Arturo Hernández García has taken sanctuary now for three-and-a-half months. I believe this is the first time someone has taken sanctuary in a church in Denver since the 1980s, during the sanctuary movement, people fleeing political persecution and violence in Latin America. Thank you.

ARTURO HERNÁNDEZ GARCÍA: Thank you. Thank you for coming, and thank you for interesting in my case. I appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me your name?

BETH CHRONISTER: My name is Beth Chronister, and I work here as the assistant minister at First Unitarian Society.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has it been like to give sanctuary to Arturo, first time sanctuary has been given in Denver since the 1980s?

BETH CHRONISTER: It’s really been a experience that has expanded the congregation. It has been an experience that has brought people together in a way to do justice. This congregation has a long history of being committed to justice, but I think, in walking with Arturo and his family through this experience, it’s been a—doing justice through companionship, in a way that we have learned so much.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the decision you went through to do this?

BETH CHRONISTER: So the process was actually about a six-month-long process. And there wasn’t instant agreement in the congregation, but it was a long process of dialogue, speaking from the pulpit, of doing small group work, and educating ourselves about immigration to figure out what was the way that we felt, as a community, that we could best affect the situation, which all ended in a big congregational vote, which was overwhelmingly positive.

AMY GOODMAN: How many?

BETH CHRONISTER: Oh, my goodness, I think was about a 90 percent yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many people in the congregation?

BETH CHRONISTER: Oh, how many people in the congregation? We have a congregation of about 370.

AMY GOODMAN: Can’t ICE just walk in and arrest him?

BETH CHRONISTER: So, the history with sanctuary and respecting sanctuary in churches is that they don’t, that they—it would just look so bad, that they probably wouldn’t. I think that there’s the same sort of respect for schools and hospitals that they have for churches.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long do you think this will go on for?

BETH CHRONISTER: Oh, my goodness. We are hoping that Arturo and Ana and his children are able to get—to all be reunited as soon as possible, hopefully in this next week. But we’ve been hoping for this next week for quite some time. But we’re in it as a community of commitment around him.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks so much.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Beth Chronister. She is assistant minister at the First Unitarian Church here in Denver, Colorado, where Arturo García Hernández has taken sanctuary as he seeks to stay in the United States with his wife and his two daughters. I was with him last night here in Denver. Special thanks to Denis Moynihan for helping to film our interview.

Well, we’re joined right now by Jennifer Piper. She helped Arturo Hernández García enter sanctuary. She coordinates the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, is an interfaith organizer for American Friends Service Committee.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Very quickly, explain the circumstances under which Arturo ended up at this church.

JENNIFER PIPER: Yeah, the circumstances are actually really common and represent a lot of people in the community, because of the strong link between police and sheriffs and immigration in our country. So, he was laying tile at a job site. Another—

AMY GOODMAN: He runs a tile-laying company with his brother here in Denver.

JENNIFER PIPER: Yeah, and they employ six people. And so, they were—it was a huge job site, and they were laying tile, and a guy wanted to hang windows. And that gentleman didn’t like that they refused him entry into the work area, because—

AMY GOODMAN: Because they didn’t want him to walk on the tile that they just laid.

JENNIFER PIPER: Yeah, it was not safe for him. It would ruin the tile. It would waste money and time. And they had it roped off. And the gentleman was white, and he started yelling racial slurs at Arturo and his crew. And they said, “Well, you need to talk to the supervisor. If the supervisor says you can come in the area, we’ll let you.” The supervisor, of course, said he couldn’t. He said he wasn’t going to take orders from any Mexicans. He went right up into Arturo’s face, and Arturo gently pushed him away, because he thought he was going to hit Arturo. The guy went off and left, called the police, accused Arturo of threatening him. Everyone on the scene, including the supervisors, general contractors, testified in court that Arturo did not instigate the argument and that he didn’t threaten this guy in any way. And he was—Arturo was found not guilty by a jury of 12 people.

And despite that, immigration continued deportation proceedings against him. That was almost five years ago now. And so, he has exhausted every legal avenue open to him in fighting his case and been denied discretion over and over again. So, now things have changed a little bit in the legal argument in his case because of the deferred action program that President Obama announced in November.

AMY GOODMAN: Why would he become eligible under it?

JENNIFER PIPER: So, he has a U.S. citizen daughter. He’s been here more than 10 years—well, he’s been here more than the five years that’s required by the program. He has no criminal record. He’s paid taxes. He meets all the requirements. The only issue is he has a deportation order that was issued last year, and that means that we’ll have to ask the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant him discretion and allow him to qualify. But otherwise, he completely qualifies.

AMY GOODMAN: Quite something, this church has become a sanctuary church for a new wave of sanctuary from the ’80s.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, in this last minute that we have, how this story of Arturo fits into the national picture and what’s happening around immigration rights?

JENNIFER PIPER: Yeah, well, we really see our immigrants organizing and finding ways to further resist a system that is widespread throughout our country. We spend $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement, which is more than all the other federal law enforcement agencies combined. And as long as we keep spending that amount of money on immigration enforcement, we’ll see families like Arturo’s being separated. We’ll see people like Arturo being deported, because we have this immense amount of resources that we’re putting into deportation. And we have to ask: Is that really the priority of our country? Because that’s what the spending priority is right now. And as long as we see that and we see continued links between police and immigration, we’ll continue to see key members of our communities deported. And so, what we also see are allied communities who realize they know people who are undocumented, who are in deportation, stepping up to accompany and experience a little bit of the risk that people like Arturo are living every day.

AMY GOODMAN: And this sanctuary movement, is it growing?

JENNIFER PIPER: The amount of churches who have committed to sanctuary is growing. The number of people actually taking sanctuary isn’t. And some of that is because of this new program and some new opportunities for people that attempt to stay in the country legally. But even if they implement that fully, it will only cover five million of the 10 million or so people who are here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jennifer Piper, we will continue to follow Arturo’s case. You know, it’s interesting, Jessie Hernandez and Arturo Hernández García, they’re not related—


AMY GOODMAN: —but their stories have intersected with their daughters.

JENNIFER PIPER: Yeah, Arturo’s oldest daughter, Mariana, actually went to school with Jessie, and his family has been very impacted by the violence of the Denver Police Department and the way that there’s no accountability. And I think that the lack of accountability with the Denver Police Department is the same lack of accountability we see in the immigration enforcement system.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Piper is interfaith organizer for American Friends Service Committee here in Denver, coordinating the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition. She helped Arturo Hernández García enter sanctuary at the First Unitarian Church in Denver.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, journalist David Sirota. Stay with us.

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