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Two Days Before Deportation, Akron Woman Claims Sanctuary

Philip De Oliveira
Leonora Garcia has been living in the United States without documentation for at least 20 years.

After prayers in both English and Spanish asking for guidance for local and national leaders, nearly 50 members of the Forest Hill Presbyterian Church and surrounding community stood on the steps of the Cleveland Heights chapel in support of Leonor Garcia.

The mother of four recently lived and worked in the Akron area, but now calls the church itself her home.

Garcia came to the U.S. illegally as a teenager some 20 years ago, but had recently been contacted by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and was slated to be deported Thursday.

Last week, Garcia took sanctuary in the church, worried over the scheduled deportation to her native Mexico.

“I want to stay here with my family. I want to fight it because I love my family. I don’t [have anything] in Mexico, only here,” Garcia said Tuesday, surrounded by three of her four children, who range in age from 3 to 19.

Her search for protection was triggered by the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals program. DACA offered a level of protection to people like Garcia who came to the U.S. illegally as children, granting them temporary reprieve from deportation and a work permit.  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week that program would be phased out over the course of six months, ending in March 2018, unless Congress takes action to find a permanent solution. That’s what Forest Hill Pastor John Lentz wants to see happen.

“I have found that really, once we get to the human reality of this, this is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Republicans, Democrats, Independents come together because they just have a heart for this story.”

Lentz said he decided to hold a formal press conference introducing Garcia to the community Tuesday as a way to pressure other congregations - of all faiths - to take similar action, but he says he recognizes there is a risk.

Taking sanctuary in a church doesn’t hold up to legal muster, but a regional spokesperson for ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, said agency policy prohibits officers from making arrests at sensitive locations, like schools, courthouses, and churches.

Still, Lentz said the public statement of sanctuary increases the possibility for police scrutiny of his church.

“But sometimes I think the higher calling to lift up this issue and put a human face on it is more important than fear,” he said. “Courage is fear that’s said its prayers and so we have to move through fear into courage.”

Cleveland Heights City Councilman Mike Ungar said he would contact the city’s police department and encourage them to offer additional protection to Forest Hill Church, not to target it.

The public announcement, though, is the first test of Cleveland Heights’s February vote to become a “Welcoming City,” rather than a sanctuary city. That designation shows the city objects to shifting federal stances on immigration policy, like the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA last week.

“It is up to all of us, in my opinion, to join arm in arm and lead the fight at a local, grassroots level against this kind of meanness that’s coming out of Washington, D. C., at an unprecedented level,” Ungar said.

Ungar said his attendance at the Tuesday event did not represent the entire Cleveland Heights Council, but his own personal stance on the issue.

Lentz said his congregation intends to house and support Garcia, and her children when necessary, until it is safe for her to return to her Akron home, without threat of deportation.

Ashton Marra covers the Capitol for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program. Ashton can also be heard Sunday evenings as she brings you state headlines during NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. She joined the news team in October of 2012.