North Carolina Woman Facing Deportation Takes Sanctuary as ICE’s ‘Silent Raids’ Continue

"Are there enough churches here to take up this struggle?”

Minerva Garcia speaks at the Congregational UCC church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Tina Vasquez / Rewire

The Winston-Salem, North Carolina, mother who has been publicly fighting her deportation has sought sanctuary at a local church.

After nearly two decades in the United States, Minerva Garcia received an order from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to leave the country by Friday. Instead, at a press conference on Thursday, she announced her decision to seek sanctuary at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, North Carolina. She will remain there indefinitely with her two youngest sons, U.S. citizens ages 3 and 6. Her eldest son, 21-year-old Eduardo, who is blind and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, will stay with friends and family.

“Hearing my mom go through all of this mess is really frustrating. I’m upset,” Eduardo told the crowd gathered at his mother’s press conference yesterday. “I need my mom. I need her to stay. I need my family to stay. They mean the world to me. I hope ICE finds it in their heart to let them stay.”

Garcia appears to be the second undocumented immigrant in North Carolina’s history to seek sanctuary in a church. The first, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a mother of four, sought sanctuary at Greensboro’s St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in May.

ICE purports to maintain a “sensitive locations” policy, which states that enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including “places of worship,” “should generally be avoided.” The agency clarifies on its website that enforcement actions at churches and other sensitive locations can still occur, but “requires either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action.”

Garcia and Ortega are hoping to follow in the footsteps of women like Jeanette Vizguerra, who made national headlines when she took refuge inside a Denver church for 86 days. Last monthVizguerra was granted temporary relief from deportation.

Garcia’s attorney had sought a stay of deportation in the weeks leading up to June 30. The local community held church events, press conferences, and candlelight vigils to raise awareness about Garcia’s case and encourage supporters to call and email ICE officials requesting that they give Garcia a stay of deportation. An online petition on her behalf garnered more than 12,000 signatures and an online fundraiser eclipsed $2,100 for Garcia’s mounting legal expenses.

Garcia for years has maintained regular contact with ICE without indication she would face deportation. Her attorney says she has no criminal record, has paid taxes, and is not considered a threat of any kind. Her deportation order is representative of a larger, national trend of “silent raids,” advocates say.

Silent raids are the increasingly common practice of ICE turning a routine check-in into deportation, either by informing the person they have 30 days to leave the country or by detaining them on the spot, according to advocates. Garcia was given a 30-day warning and made to buy her own bus ticket back to Mexico.

“Ironically, this strategy punishes people who are trying to do what the government has asked of them. Typically, they have been living in the country for a decade or more, have U.S. citizen children, and have nothing on their record that suggests they are dangerous,” the immigration reform advocacy organization America’s Voice explained in an online press statement. “They are just regular immigrants who a previous administration thought should be put at the bottom of the deportation list, as long as they continued to check-in as required.

These so-called silent raids have affected a growing number of immigrant women, and more stories are emerging as each day passes. On Wednesday, June 22, Cristina Rodriguez Sagarnaga, a Colorado mother of three, attended her routine check-in with ICE. The federal immigration agency denied Sagarnaga’s request for a stay of deportation before she arrived for her scheduled check in, but they did not notify the mother of three or her attorney until she was already inside the office. She was detained immediately. She has since been deported to Mexico.

Reyna Gómez, an undocumented domestic worker from Honduras who has been living in South Florida for more than 15 years, attended her routine check-in with ICE on June 27 and was granted only 30 days to stay in the country before her next check-in. This, despite the fact that Gómez is currently being treated for a rare form of Leukemia and needs medication every three months. Gómez, a domestic workers’ rights advocate, is also currently petitioning for deferred action based on her medical needs, a process that takes more than 30 days.

Gómez fears going to her July check-in and “becoming another victim of the silent raids,” according to a press release from United We Dream, an immigrant rights organization working with Gómez on her case. 

“My life is literally at risk if I go back to Honduras,” Gómez said in the press release. “For 15 years I have done everything within my reach to address my immigration status, but our broken immigration system denied every opportunity and gives me only 30 days to do something or I could be deported me back to a place where my life was threatened and where I will not have the medical attention I need.”

Gómez initially left her native Honduras fleeing an abusive relationship and requested asylum, but was denied. Like Garcia, Gómez may soon have to make the hard decision to leave life as she knows it behind and potentially seek sanctuary in a church—an option advocates say is a last resort, but that will become increasingly common as ICE continues its so-called silent raids.

Garcia told Rewire this month that seeking refuge in a church was not something she was considering, as she had two small children and a disabled son for whom to care. As the date drew nearer, local organizer Kim Porter said, it became clear Garcia had no other options.

Garcia at the Thursday press conference sat in the first pew of Congregational United Church of Christ with her family; her two small sons wore matching striped shirts and clutched large stuffed animals, seemingly unaware of the drastic ways their lives were about to change. Faith leaders addressed the crowd and Garcia, promising to “engulf Minerva in a wave of protection.”

A solemn Garcia made a few brief remarks, making the crowd laugh when she referred to her 21-year-old son Eduardo as someone who is “still” her “baby.” She asserted that her children need her here in the United States to ensure they are “safe, educated,” and turn into “good people.”

Minerva’s two youngest sons. (Tina Vasquez / Rewire)

Laura Garduno, a mother, DACA recipient, and local immigrant rights advocate, addressed Garcia from the pulpit, telling her that she was not alone and that the community would fight for her until she could safely walk out the church’s doors.

In an interview with Rewire, Garduno echoed what many faith leaders had said in relation to Garcia’s case: “Man’s law is failing” and until unjust immigration laws are amended, the church will provide a “humane and human response.”

“When I first moved to North Carolina, I remember thinking: Why are there so many churches here?” Garduno said. “Now I find myself thinking: Are there enough churches here to take up this struggle?”