You can trace the tradition of churches offering physical sanctuary to those who sought it back to the early Christian Church in Rome. In England, a church’s spiritual authority to offer sanctuary to those accused of some wrongdoing was ensconced in law until the 17th century. And since then, even without legal codification, churches have continued to offer protection and shelter to people seeking asylum.
On Sunday, November 13th, during the 11 a.m. religious service, Javier Flores García, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, crime victim, and father of three U.S. citizen children, found that asylum in Arch Street United Methodist Church at Broad and Arch streets.
A soft-spoken man of serious demeanor who, before he was detained in 2015, worked trimming and removing trees, Flores spoke with me after the service about what has driven him to make the tough choice to spend 24 hours a day for an indefinite period of time in sanctuary at the church.
It can be summed up in one word: family.
“I’m here to keep fighting for my children,” Flores said. “I am not a fugitive. I made this decision to come to this church, which opened its doors to me to continue fighting to be with my children.”
The day before he was slated to be deported, Flores made the choice to go into sanctuary. He had already spent 16 months in detention at Pike County Detention Center — not for entering “without inspection” (which is a misdemeanor administrative offense), but for reentering the country to be with his children after receiving, he says, bad legal advice about how to regularize his residence status.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has given Flores’s petition for a U-Visa “prima facie determination.” That is, they have determined that because he is the victim of a crime to which he can testify — he was stabbed while he and his brothers were being robbed — he might have sufficient cause to remain.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a bad habit of deporting those whose U-Visa cases haven’t been finalized by USCIS yet. In 2015, the agency deported a mother and her 13-year-old daughter from Berks County Residential Center while their case for protection under the Violence Against Women Act was pending. (Hours later a federal judge in Philadelphia ordered ICE to return them to the U.S.)
Flores was released from detention (and closely monitored) for 90 days, to make whatever arrangements he needed to make for his family before being deported, and on the last day of those 90, he entered sanctuary.
His time in detention was hard on his children — Adamaris, 13; (Javier) Junior, 5; and Jael, 3 — as well as his wife, Alma, but it has been worst for Adamaris and Junior, who saw him arrested during the home raid that sent him to Pike. The eldest has been emotionally traumatized by the separation from her father, and the five-year-old was recently diagnosed with PTSD, according to Olivia Vazquez, a community organizer from Juntos, a Latinx immigrant-rights advocacy organization.
“The situation the children are in is hard,” Flores said. “Now, my oldest boy, he doesn’t want to go home.” In fact, during the community sharing after the service it was determined that Junior would stay with his father in the single room that has been provided for him, because the child cries inconsolably whenever he is separated from his father. Throughout the service Flores held Junior in his arms.
Flores is the second undocumented immigrant to enter into sanctuary in Philadelphia in recent years. In November 2014, Angela Navarro — a young Honduran mother of two U.S. citizen children — went into sanctuary at West Kensington Ministry in Norris Square. She, along with her husband and two children, lived at the church until January 2015, when the federal ICE office halted her deportation via prosecutorial discretion.
Navarro, like Flores, is Catholic and not a member of the congregation that stepped up to offer her shelter and protection.
“I’m a member of another congregation,” Flores said, “but unfortunately sometimes they don’t open doors. I don’t think it’s the religion, but the people who are in charge. They don’t understand what we are going through.
“I want people to understand I don’t have a criminal record. I’m not a criminal,” he said. “I’ve returned to this country for my children. If they deport me again — I’ve told them — I’ll return again because of my children.”
If Flores’s commitment to his family doesn’t resonate with his own faith tradition, it does with his sheltering congregation. Arch Street United Methodist (like West Kensington Ministry) is part of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an interfaith organization with some 20 congregations committed to seeing immigrants treated with dignity and justice.
“Family is the basic human community,” said Rev. Robin Hynicka during the service on Sunday. “People may say Javier is an undocumented immigrant, but we say he is a cherished citizen of the world [and] a dedicated father.”
Hynicka called anti-immigrant sentiments and laws evil, unjust and oppressive. “Stand and resist evil in any form you see it,” he enjoined those gathered in the church. “You, you are the sanctuary.”
Members of the Arch Street United Methodist congregation, in one voice on the brisk but sunny Sunday morning, pledged to “live out in real time” their baptismal vows and pledged “to provide sanctuary for Javier and radical hospitality” for his family.
Miguel Andrade, the Juntos member who led the effort to secure sanctuary for Flores, also spoke about the significance of the moment: “Javier’s act of resistance comes at a time when it is absolutely vital for our communities to stand in the face of an unprecedented level of hatred. We are faced now with a president-elect that based his entire campaign on the demonizing of our immigrant communities and who now stands to take the last administration’s deportation machine to new levels.
“Juntos and those supporting Javier,” he added, “are calling for his case to be closed and for President Obama to dismantle the deportation machine he built so that it is not handed to his successor.”
Flores is determined to be a father to his children, no matter what: “I think it’s like it is anywhere. It doesn’t matter who the president is — you have to keep working for what is really important.”