Stuck in Sanctuary: A Philadelphia Family Resists Deportation

Stuck in Sanctuary: A Philadelphia Family Resists Deportation

With the Trump administration continuing to step up raids and deportations nationwide, providing real sanctuary is as vital as it is challenging. One immigrant’s story.

Javier Flores and his son greeting Juntos members and supporters from his residence in the basement of Arch Street Methodist Church, Philadelphia, March 7 (Harvey Finkle)

It hadn’t been easy, but after sixteen years, Javier Flores, an undocumented immigrant from Toluca, Mexico, was well on his way to creating a secure life in the United States. He and his partner, Alma, were living in a large two-story stone house in northeast Philadelphia, a quiet middle-class part of town. They had a son—Javier Jr.—and were raising Alma’s older daughter. The house had a backyard large enough to accommodate the heavy tree-cutting machinery Flores had invested in for his landscaping work. He and his brother planned to start their own business.

Then, on November 5, 2013, Flores was taking out the trash when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents swarmed onto the lawn, handcuffed him, and packed him into a van. Alma and the kids watched in horror from inside the house as he was led away. Several agents approached the door and knocked. They told Alma, who was pregnant with their third child, that Flores was being charged with illegally reentering the country after a previous deportation in 2007—a felony that could lead to up to two years’ imprisonment, a fine, and another deportation.

Flores hadn’t thought much about that earlier deportation. That time, it had taken him just a week to get back to Philadelphia after being sent to Mexico City on a commercial flight. But this time, when he tried to recross the border in late 2013, he was stymied repeatedly, first by cartel enforcers who demanded payment, then by harsh weather, then finally by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) checkpoints just inside the U.S. border. He was detained for a month in Texas, then two and a half more months in Arizona.

Flores made it back to Philadelphia three days before his son Yael was born. “I had to return,” he told me earlier this year. “There wasn’t anyone to pay the rent, nobody to pay the bills, no one to be with Alma when she went to the hospital. What do you want me to do? Sit here and wait? I said no.”

He began a constrained life, leaving the house only for work, then taking care of the three children while Alma cleaned houses. Alma told him she wanted to move—migración was sure to return. No, no, she recalled him saying. They won’t come back.

He was wrong. On May 5, 2015, ICE agents arrested Flores as he waited across the street for a ride to work. Alma, who is also undocumented, pulled into their driveway in the moments following the arrest. An agent approached her window and, after taking her name down, told her to hire a good lawyer. Alma laughed nervously as she recalled the encounter. “I thought he was going to arrest me, too.”

Flores was sitting in an unlocked cell in Pennsylvania’s Pike County Detention Center that June when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, telling the world that the immigrants Mexico was “sending” to the United States were rapists and criminals. Flores remained incarcerated throughout the campaign. While Trump doubled down on his crude ethno-nationalist message, to the dismay of liberals and many conservatives alike, Flores was fighting his case in immigration court. But in early 2016, he finally got a new lawyer—paid for by the Mexican Consulate—who was astounded at the poor counsel Flores had been receiving in exchange for steep cash payments. The lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, realized that Flores could apply for a U Visa, a special category intended to encourage participation in law enforcement efforts. As it turned out, in 2004 Flores had been assaulted by two men in an apartment complex, and cooperated with the police investigation and testified in the ensuing trial.

A judge rejected their first attempt to get a U Visa, and while his lawyer was appealing the decision, an order came down to process Flores’s deportation. A last-minute application for humanitarian parole—a ninety-day stay of deportation to allow the deportee to make arrangements for his or her family—was granted. Flores was given an ankle monitor and released.

Flores couldn’t believe his luck. He quickly got to work on the house and around the neighborhood, fulfilling jobs that had gone unfinished for the past year and a half. Then, on November 13, 2016, the day before he was supposed to turn himself in to immigration authorities, Flores took a final, desperate measure to stay in the country. He quietly gathered a few belongings and moved into a church basement in downtown Philadelphia that had agreed to shield him from deportation.

“I understand that, well, I broke the law,” he told me a few months later. “But I would do it again. Like I said, if you send me back, I’ll return to my family.”

The sanctuary movement in the United States dates back to the 1980s, when religious and lay communities offered shelter to refugees fleeing U.S.-backed dictatorships in Central America. While hundreds of churches continue to offer safe harbor for undocumented immigrants, more recently, the term “sanctuary” has come to acquire a much broader meaning. Its most common iteration, “sanctuary cities,” describes a patchwork of jurisdictions that limit the use of local resources for federal immigration enforcement.

Philadelphia’s sanctuary movement, which long predates Trump’s presidency, seeks to expand that definition. Spurred in large part by a series of high-profile deportations in the Obama years, a grassroots coalition of community activists, lawyers, and faith congregations pushed the city to adopt progressive legislation. Philadelphia prisons do not release detainees to federal authorities without a judicial warrant, and its police officers are prohibited from asking about immigration status.

Juntos, based in South Philadelphia—a neighborhood sometimes called Puebladelfía in joking reference to the large number of people who hail from the Mexican state of Puebla—began serving the city’s growing Mexican population in 2002. The organization originally concentrated its efforts on services to individuals, but has increasingly emphasized advocacy and collective organizing. It is now at the forefront in Philadelphia of what one could call a new sanctuary movement—not only helping people like Flores to avoid deportation by connecting families facing the threat of deportation with services like sanctuary churches, but also creating solidarity networks within immigrant communities. Leading this effort is Erika Almiron, a daughter of Paraguayan immigrants who took over as director in 2011.

One of Almiron’s first steps as director was to organize youth meetings. “When I was growing up, there were no safe spaces for young people of color to think critically,” she recalled. But her decision to organize Latino youth was at first controversial. “People were afraid,” said Olivia Vazquez, Juntos’s youth and outreach coordinator. “It wasn’t like how it is now that a lot of people are fighting for immigration rights, it was something that was just emerging. People still wanted to stay in the shadows.”

Then, aggressive cutbacks to the city’s public schools in 2013 set off historic student protests, which coincided with a broader wave of anti-deportation activism across the country. “We can’t ever win anything unless the most affected are in the front,” Almiron said, adding that young activists started pulling their parents in for organizing meetings.

Those conversations helped the community to start thinking of Juntos not just as a service provider on individual cases, but rather as a political entity that could fight deportation policies more broadly. At the time, community members would often call the Juntos offices after loved ones disappeared.

“People would call the office and say, ‘I haven’t seen my husband in four days.’ And I would say, ‘Well, what’s the last thing that you know?’ ‘Oh, he went to a party—”

“Or he was coming out of work,” Vazquez interjected.

“—and somewhere, the police stopped him, right? And that’s all it would take. There were tons of things that could have happened—but the first intersection was the police.”

In December 2013, Juntos members—undocumented immigrants among them—occupied the local ICE facility for a day, demanding an end to deportations. The protesters were swarmed by law enforcement from various agencies, but no one was arrested—a symbolic victory not only for Juntos and their allies, but also for the undocumented community terrified of any interaction with the police.

ICE depends on the collaboration of local police departments in order to deport as many people as they do each year. By trawling national and state-level crime databases for anyone who matches deportation guidelines, ICE agents file “detainer” requests, asking local law enforcement to hold the person in question for up to forty-eight additional hours, giving ICE agents time to come and detain them.

“Once that detainer hits,” Almiron explained, “it’s a wrap.” Seeking to challenge the legality of those requests, activists teamed up with a group of lawyers, who found a 2010 case in which a New Jersey–born man of Puerto Rican descent named Ernesto Galarza successfully sued Lehigh County for honoring an ICE detainer request. Since detainer requests aren’t signed by a judge, the court found that the city had violated Galarza’s constitutional rights—specifically, the Fourth Amendment, which protects against arbitrary arrests and detention.

Juntos members and supporters march to “defend and expand sanctuary,” Philadelphia, March 7 (Harvey Finkle)

Juntos formed a coalition with Philadelphia’s New Sanctuary Movement, a faith-based coalition of activists. Together, they successfully pressured Philadelphia’s mayor at the time, Michael Nutter, to stop honoring what they called the “ICE holds” policy. Current mayor Jim Kenney has since emerged as a strong defender of Philadelphia’s sanctuary city policy. In a neat workaround of what has become a highly charged term, however, Kenney prefers to call Philadelphia a “Fourth Amendment city.”

For Almiron, the ban on detainer requests is just a first step. She, too, shies away from the term sanctuary city, noting Philadelphia’s long history of police violence and stop-and-frisk policing, and added that even if the city doesn’t honor detainer requests, ICE still has access to extensive police databases, which they regularly use to carry out raids.

“When ICE comes in here and says [we’re] letting all these people get away, that they don’t have any access, that we’re some rogue city—no,” she added. “You have had plenty of access to our families. And to our homes. And to our information. And you’re still coming after us.”

The immigration crackdown that Donald Trump had been promising since he announced his candidacy arrived shortly after he took office. Even as it has been overshadowed by the constant chaos and dysfunction in Washington, the Trump administration’s harsh agenda on immigration is being fulfilled.

The speed and ease with which immigration authorities have expanded their reach lays bare an uncomfortable truth: some of Trump’s closest aides and cabinet staff—who share a years-long obsession with criminalizing and hounding undocumented immigrants—are expanding a large, well-financed, decades-old deportation system. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which vastly expanded the budget and scope of border patrol and interior immigration enforcement and lowered the bar for immediately deportable offenses. Deportations ramped up during the George W. Bush administration, when ICE was created and folded into the Department of Homeland Security alongside Customs and Border Patrol.

Instead of scaling this system back, President Obama reinforced it while pursuing an immigration reform package that failed in the face of Republican intransigence. As his administration deported vast numbers of immigrants, Obama earned the derisive title “deporter-in-chief.” But the Obama administration did take important steps to shield some immigrants from deportation, chief among them the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which would provide a pathway to legal status for a select number of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

Although ICE data shows an increasing proportion of deportees are felons, a Marshall Project review of some 300,000 deportations in the final years of Obama’s presidency complicates his administration’s narrative. The majority of those deported, the project found, either had no criminal conviction or had only an immigration-related offense, while fewer than 20 percent of those deported had been convicted of a violent crime. For all Obama’s talk of deporting “felons, not families,” he never did away with the dragnet—he only snipped a few holes in it.

Trump is now aggressively reinforcing that dragnet. Virulent anti-immigration ideologues hold prominent positions in the administration, including Julie Kirchner, a former executive director of the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), who was named Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) ombudsman in May. ICE and CBP agents, meanwhile, are reveling in their ability to detain and deport immigrants who likely would have been left alone under Obama-era rules—including green-card applicants and DACA recipients. Furthermore, Trump has explicitly threatened even the inadequate protections offered by sanctuary cities, signing executive orders that target sanctuary jurisdictions like Philadelphia by threatening to deny them federal funding.

Nearly all major metropolitan areas—not only liberal bastions like New York and Los Angeles but also Dallas and Houston—as well as hundreds of smaller jurisdictions have adopted some sort of sanctuary order. Trump’s order on sanctuary cities was a concession to anti-immigrant groups like FAIR, who use examples of crimes committed by immigrants to suggest that sanctuary city policies make communities less safe—despite research that consistently shows that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born people do. In fact, police chiefs—including the Major Cities Chiefs Association—are key supporters of sanctuary policies, as they fear losing the confidence of witnesses and victims of crime.

One night, at a restaurant with a small group of immigration activists in South Philly, one activist pulled a waitress aside for a quiet word. Afterwards, she told me that encouraging women who had been abused by their partners to go to the police was one of the hardest parts of her job. “All of that—it’s over with Trump,” Vazquez’s mother, also named Olivia, told me later. “Who wants to be responsible for getting their husband deported?”

Just a week after the inauguration—and a day after Trump signed his key immigration-related executive orders—President Trump and Congressional Republicans descended on Philadelphia for a legislative retreat. There, Trump said that Philadelphia’s murder rate had been “terribly increasing.” Kenney punched back, noting that while the city is at its lowest crime rate in forty years, “we are not satisfied with even our current numbers, we are handicapped by Republican refusal to enact any kind of common sense gun control and by their obsession with turning our police officers into ICE agents—which will prevent immigrants from coming forward to report crimes or provide critical witnesses statements that can put dangerous criminals behind bars.”

A few days later, I pressed Kenney on the matter. Although the Trump administration has so far been vague on the specifics of defunding cities—and its first attempt is tied up in court—the threat remains. How committed was Philadelphia to protecting its immigrant community? “We’re not gonna throw anybody under the bus,” he told me. “I would be denigrating my own ethnic heritage—my great-great-grandfather fought at Gettysburg as an Irish immigrant. We’re not walking back on anything. We will use the courts, we will use the legislature and we will do our best to protect everyone.” (After receiving a letter in April from the Department of Justice demanding that the city submit documentation to prove they are in compliance with immigration law, Kenney’s office responded by restating the city’s commitment to its sanctuary policies. The city is also resisting efforts by the Pennsylvania State Senate to slash state funding for its sanctuary order.)

But activists aren’t waiting for local politicians to fight for them—their fear at the current moment is pushing them to use the networks they have developed over the past few years both to protect themselves and to keep up the pressure on their politicians.

Cindy Perez is a fifteen-year-old high-school sophomore who started going to Juntos meetings last year after her uncle was arrested for a DUI and then deported. She says her growing political consciousness came as the electoral campaign unfolded.

“What got on my nerves was the hate comments,” she reflected after a town-hall meeting in late January about concerns for immigrant students, where she gave an impassioned speech denouncing “hateful Trump” and asking that the school district fight to protect families like hers. “Before, there wasn’t a problem in my school, but now there’s more frequent jokes, racist jokes,” she said.

At a know-your-rights meeting Juntos organized that same week in Norristown, Pennsylvania—a quiet town outside Philadelphia with a majority black and immigrant population—a large church basement filled with children’s voices as their parents listened to the presentation. “Nine out of ten times [ICE agents] come to your door, they don’t have a warrant. So you don’t have to open the door to them,” Almiron told the crowd. “If they have a warrant,” she continued, “they aren’t going to knock.”

The elder Olivia Vazquez was one of the immigrant mothers who was reluctant to allow her daughter to become active in anti-deportation politics. She has long since changed her mind. “His strategy is to attack us and fill us with fear,” she said after a rally on Martin Luther King Day organized by unions and black churches in Philadelphia. “But we see what he’s doing, and we’re not afraid. They should be the ones trembling. We’re in the streets, we’re fighting, and we’re united. It’s not easy, but the war is going to cost them. We’re not going to give up easily.”

Alma tries to visit Flores a few times a week in the church basement in downtown Philadelphia. It’s normally a forty-five-minute drive, but she can’t risk getting pulled over, so she takes public transit, which adds another hour to the trip. (Trump’s first immigration-related executive order largely did away with Obama-era deportation “priorities,” which shielded people like Alma—the mother of three U.S.-born children—from deportation.) But these days the threat of deportation looms large: her interaction with the ICE agents when Flores was detained in 2015 means they know exactly where she lives.

One Obama-era order that hasn’t been undone is a 2011 Department of Homeland Security memorandum that instructs ICE agents to avoid “sensitive areas” like schools, hospitals, and churches. Still, the congregants and staff at Arch Street aren’t taking any risks. They’re trained to do everything they can to prevent law enforcement from entering the church to remove Flores without a warrant.

Flores and his family have made the best of their situation, and they try to keep it light when Alma comes to visit with the kids. But it isn’t easy. Javier Jr., now seven, has suffered from panic attacks ever since he saw ICE agents arrest his father in 2015. When Flores moved into the church basement, Junior did too. “I get him to come home sometimes, but as soon as he realizes that we’re not coming right back, he starts crying,” Alma explained. Late last year a therapist diagnosed Junior with PTSD.

While he was grateful to be able to spend time with his family, Flores seems worn down by the months he has spent in sanctuary. He’s anxious to get back to work, and worried about the bills that keep piling up. Living in a church basement doesn’t solve his fundamental problem. “If the judge tells me to go, then I might just pull this thing off and take my chances,” he told me, looking down at his ankle monitor.

One of the hardest things about the sanctuary movement is the difficulty inherent in expanding it. News reports suggest that there are a few dozen people taking shelter in situations similar to Flores’s, and the Church World Service says that some 800 congregations have pledged to offer sanctuary to immigrants in need. (Sometimes, the temporary shelter leads to a permanent solution: in early 2015, Philadelphia resident Angela Navarro successfully fought a deportation order from sanctuary in a Kensington church.)

But activists like Almiron point out that sanctuary in a church basement only gets them so far. She described being approached after an event by someone who said she had a list of twenty congregations ready to shelter an immigrant and their family. “That’s great,” Almiron recalls thinking. “But that’s the number of people ICE deports every day from Philly. What do we do tomorrow? And the day after that?”

I visited Javier and Alma Flores on a night in February while Junior and Yael, their youngest, ran around a large recreation room, filling the church basement with whoops and laughter. At 6:30 p.m., Flores and Alma turned on Univision to watch the evening news. That day’s lead story was about a meeting Trump had held in the White House with officials from the National Sheriffs’ Association—a group that, unlike many urban police departments, is staunchly anti-sanctuary. When the sheriff of Rockwall County, Texas, told Trump that a state senator had introduced legislation there to require a conviction before police could seize an individual’s assets, Trump huffed and threatened to ruin the senator’s career.

“He looks like a fried pork cutlet,” Alma noted, laughing. “Trump doesn’t know how to deal with the situation he’s in right now,” added Flores. “All he thinks about is power—that he can make it and unmake it whenever he wants.” He laughed. “That’s no way to respond in this country.”

“All we ask is that they respect our rights, but it’s almost as though there aren’t any rights left,” Alma responded with a snort. “We just heard Trump threaten to destroy the career of a citizen. What will we immigrants do?”

Flores is hardly anyone’s idea of a “bad hombre.” He is a dedicated worker respected by his clients and bosses and a committed, caring father. Not only has he not been accused of any crimes besides re-entry, he himself was the victim of assault—a crime he later helped the police solve. In many ways, he’s simply the victim of bad luck—and bad legal advice. But by crossing the border repeatedly, he’s a felon several times over. Even under the relatively easier circumstances of the Obama years, Flores would still be a priority target for deportation.

By June, Javier and Alma Flores still hadn’t heard back from the immigration judge on their U Visa appeal. Alma, the kids and a handful of activists from Arch Street and Juntos were preparing to journey, caravan-style, to the visa processing center in St. Albans, Vermont. “Sometimes our strength wavers,” Alma told me just before setting out. “But we’ve got to keep it up. Let’s see if they listen to us.”

Lucas Iberico Lozada lives in Philadelphia. His reporting and criticism has recently appeared in Newsweek, Public Books, Artsy, USA Today, and 1 magazine.