ICE Ordered Alex Garcia to Report for Deportation. He Took Sanctuary in a Maplewood Church Instead 

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click to enlarge Garcia, shown painting doors, has tried to keep himself busy in the church. - KELLY GLUECK
  • KELLY GLUECK
  • Garcia, shown painting doors, has tried to keep himself busy in the church.

Since the election, the number of churches nationwide that have publicly agreed to offer sanctuary has doubled to at least 800, according to Church World Service. There are about 30 known cases across the country of people currently living in sanctuary. Most of them are in cities, such as Denver, that have large populations of undocumented immigrants. None was in Missouri — until this fall.

In September, John learned about Garcia's case. The construction worker's attorney, Nicole Cortés of the MICA Project in St. Louis, works closely with the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America. She knew John had recently attended a conference to learn more about sanctuary and put the family in touch.

John remembers those first conversations clearly.

"They were terrified at the prospect of him leaving," she says.

Sanctuary is not for everyone. Moving into a church with no end date is an extreme and, at best, temporary solution. John carefully laid out various scenarios.

Garcia and his wife, Carleen Garcia, spent two weeks trying to decide what to do.

"In the beginning, I was against taking sanctuary," Carleen says. "I was against him not doing what they were asking, specifically because I was worried about the repercussions for doing so."

Garcia was worried about drawing negative attention to the kids, and the couple had concerns it could put Carleen in legal jeopardy, too.

"Then one morning I woke up, and I was like, 'What am I doing? Why am I just giving up? Why am I just going to give him to them?'" Carleen says. "What kind of wife would I be if I didn't fight for him?"

Garcia had been ordered to report to ICE by September 21. Instead he moved to an undisclosed safe house and, a couple of days later, Christ Church in Maplewood. He has been there ever since.

click to enlarge Christ Church supports a flurry of activity, including twelve-step programs and GED classes. - KELLY GLUECK
  • KELLY GLUECK
  • Christ Church supports a flurry of activity, including twelve-step programs and GED classes.

Garcia spends his days in the church hunting for projects to keep himself busy — leaky windows to glaze, faded doors to paint, drywall to patch.

Built in the early 1920s by German evangelicals, Christ Church sits on a corner in a shady residential neighborhood of Maplewood. It has become a hive of activity. On any given day, food trucks are parked outside while cooks prep meals in the building's lower-level kitchen. Gardeners tend the last of the summer vegetables in raised beds at the edge of the parking lot, and off hours are filled by twelve-step programs and GED classes.

The Rev. Rebecca Turner, who leads the progressive congregation, was one of the first to say her church would offer Garcia sanctuary.

"If we're going to take seriously following Jesus, then we have to engage with the world," she says.

Weeks later, she does not regret the decision, even if engaging with the world leads to engaging with a powerful arm of the federal government. Legally, ICE agents could show up at any moment, force open the doors and take Garcia away. Sanctuary offers no real protection from the law. But Turner is relying on ICE to follow the agency's written policy that says it won't enter "sensitive" locations, including churches, to make arrests unless there is an emergency.

As an added safeguard, Garcia and his supporters chose to announce their actions publicly, sending out press releases, enlisting politicians and allowing reporters to visit the church. Cortés says if ICE agents do decide to go against their policies and arrest Garcia at the church, they will have to deal with the publicity that comes with it.

"We're not going to let that happen quietly," she says. "If that's happening, we're going to be loud."

Rep. Stacey Newman (D-St. Louis County) is one of the elected officials who have come to Garcia's aid. She says his case is a perfect example of the need for a better path to citizenship, and it would be cruel to deport him simply over a shift in policy.

"This is a real-life situation for Alex and his wife and his five children," she says. "Sending someone back like this is really just out of spite."

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