Mid-City church becomes sanctuary for illegal immigrant

NEW ORLEANS -  On Christmas Day, Jose Torres stayed inside the same place he's been for a month-and-a-half.  He didn't dare leave -- not even to go home to his wife and children.

Instead, he's living in First Grace United Methodist Church on Canal Street in Mid-City, hoping to avoid deportation.

Pastor Shawn Anglim says the congregation voted earlier this year on whether or not to become a religious "sanctuary" for undocumented or illegal immigrants, and the vote was overwhelmingly in favor. Torres moved in November 15th.

What is a church "sanctuary"?

Loyola Law Professor Bill Quigley, who's also the church's attorney, says more than 800 congregations around the nation "participate in the sanctuary movement to protect undocumented immigrants," although fewer than 20 have actually provided that sanctuary.

Churches are one of three institutions that immigration authorities call "sensitive locations" (the others are hospitals and schools).  Tom Byrd, the southeast regional spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says sensitive locations are places where federal policy discourages ICE from making an arrest.

First Grace and other sanctuary churches will allow an immigrant to stay in the church and provide basic necessities, until the immigrant is able to get a "stay of deportation" or some other resolution with immigration authorities.  However, Professor Quigley says that sanctuary churches "do run a small risk of being prosecuted themselves," because federal law "prohibits people from harboring anyone illegally staying in the U.S."

At First Grace, Pastor Anglim says Torres attends church services, helps prepare hundreds of meals the church makes each week for the needy, and does some maintenance on church property.  Pastor Anglim says his congregation has "embraced" Torres, and that Torres has "brought joy to every corner of (the) church."

Not exactly "undocumented"?

Torres is one of the immigrants many New Orleanians were grateful to see after Hurricane Katrina.  He came here from El Salvador-- part of the wave of Latino workers who swept into the city while it was still mostly evacuated.

That group took the dirtiest and most difficult jobs. They earned admiration for gutting moldy houses -- often without adequate equipment or protection -- tearing out walls and pushing out mud with nothing more than their hands. And they persevered, often after getting cheated out of their pay by shady contractors.

In the twelve years since the hurricane, Torres got married and has two, American-born children. Although he's not a citizen, immigration authorities had allowed him to continue working in construction -- and get a social security card. That means he can't be accused of one the most frequent objections against illegal immigrants. Torres pays taxes.

A drunk driving conviction

But a couple of years ago, Torres was arrested for drunk driving and drew the attention of ICE.  He went through the normal process of getting the conviction taken off his record, and his lawyer, Mary Yanik, says she can't understand why ICE is so eager to deport him now.

Torres had "received prosecutorial discretion even with the past conviction," Yanik told WGNO in an email, "meaning that ICE recognized that was an error but that his family ties and long work history in the U.S. justified allowing him to remain."

"Of course that all changed more recently," says Yanik, "only because of the new administration, as (Torres') personal circumstances are the same."

Torres and Pastor Anglim say they realize the risk of of drawing the ire of ICE by agreeing to let WGNO tell this story, but they say that's a risk they accept.

"Peace is found in these struggles," says Anglim, adding that he welcomes the opportunity to bring the story into the public eye.

Becoming a sanctuary is not something the congregation "has to do," he says.

"It's something that we get to do."