Undocumented Mother Doesn’t Have to Hide From ICE in a Church Anymore

"Never lose hope. You will be free again."

Garcia spent years, and upwards of $20,000, trying to adjust her status in the United States, but there is no pathway to citizenship for people like Garcia, who've spent decades living and working in the United States. Tina Vasquez / Rewire

After spending 96 days in sanctuary at a Greensboro, North Carolina, church, Minerva Garcia is free.

Garcia was a victim of what immigrant advocates call Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) “silent raids,” in which undocumented people who’ve spent years checking in with the federal immigration agency are detained at their regularly-scheduled check-ins or given 30 days to leave the country.

Garcia sought sanctuary at Congregational United Church of Christ on June 29 after a check-in with ICE in which she was told she had to leave the United States by June 30. Garcia had quietly lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for almost 20 years, working and caring for her children. 

A federal judge in Texas ruled that Garcia’s removal order be vacated, allowing her to leave sanctuary. Helen Parsonage, Garcia’s attorney, told Rewire that when she received the letter in the mail Monday morning from the immigration court, she cried.

“My hands were shaking so bad, I could barely hang on to the letter,” Parsonage said. “There are still legal ends to tie up [for Garcia to safely remain in the United States]. The fight continues, but this battle has been won. This is a big win for the community, who fought for Minerva and rallied around her.”

The mother of three received sustained support from the Winston-Salem and Greensboro communities, with organizers in both cities working with the faith community to ensure Garcia’s safety.

Garcia and her two small sons, Matteo and Antonio, celebrated birthdays while in sanctuary. Two weeks before she knew she’d be released, Garcia talked to Rewire about the difficulties of living in a confined space with two young children.

Her youngest son, just three at the time, did not understand why they had to leave their Winston-Salem home to live in a church.

“I told him that the police wanted to arrest me and if they found me, they would take me away,” Garcia said. “He said, ‘Why would they do that? Why do they want to take you?’ I told him that to live in the United States, you need a special piece of paper and I didn’t have that paper.”

After her husband died in 2000, Garcia migrated to the United States with her two eldest sons. When they arrived at the border from San Nicolás, a municipality in southwestern Mexico, Garcia said she had no intention of misleading immigration officials. Garcia told Border Patrol she wanted to enter the United States to find better educational opportunities for her son Eduardo. Garcia’s oldest, Eduardo, is 21 years old and blind due to complications from cancer. Her second-oldest son died from cancer in 2007, seven years after they first migrated to the United States. Her two other children, who are now 7 and 4 years old, were born in North Carolina. Winston-Salem is the only home they’ve ever known.

Garcia spent years, and upwards of $20,000, trying to adjust her status in the United States, but as Rewire reported, there is simply no pathway to citizenship for people like Garcia, who’ve spent decades living and working in the United States.

During the weeks leading up to her release from sanctuary, Garcia told Rewire there were “very hard days” in sanctuary, days where she felt alone and misunderstood. All she wanted was her old life back: Living in her home, going to work every day, taking care of her children.

“In a perfect world, I could stand on my porch at home and not be afraid. I would have my freedom back. I would have my own life,” she said.

Garcia on Monday got her wish. Though her case is still open, at least for the immediate future, Garcia can simply live her life.

“It means so much to me to have my freedom back,” Garcia said at a press conference Monday. “I just want to go home and live a normal life.”

Winston-Salem pastor Lamont Williams told the crowd gathered to see Garcia’s exit from sanctuary that while the wheels of justice “may turn slow, they are still turning.”

“Human rights are equal rights, and those rights are worth dying for,” he said.

Julie Peeples, the reverend at the church where Minerva spent the past three months, asked that “justice may also come to pass” for Juana Luz Tobar Ortega and the Rev. Jose Chicas, two undocumented people in sanctuary in North Carolina, and “for all others who may enter sanctuary across the nation.”

Minerva Garcia and Juana Luz Tobar Ortega embrace at St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church, where Tobar has taken sanctuary.

Garcia’s first act as “a free woman” was to visit Tobar in sanctuary, five miles away at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. Tobar, a 45-year-old Guatemalan grandmother, took sanctuary on May 29 after being ordered to leave the country she’s called home for 24 years. Initially, Garcia wasn’t going to take sanctuary, but after connecting with Tobar, who gave Garcia a tour of her space in St. Barnabas, Garcia decided to enter Congregational United Church of Christ. The two women became the first undocumented immigrants to enter sanctuary in North Carolina history, just weeks apart, and have remained close, with regular phone calls from their respective churches. 

As Tobar waited for Garcia to arrive from her Monday press conference, she stood in a church hallway surrounded by organizers and volunteers. She fidgeted with a tissue in her hands, her eyes red and puffy, her ankle shackle visible on her bare leg.

“Of course I’m so happy she’s [Garcia’s] leaving, but it’s hard not to be able to go back home,” Tobar said quietly.

Those surrounding Tobar told her she’d be next. She walked outside to a church courtyard and waited for Garcia. As local media swarmed in anticipation, Tobar looked out into the distance. St. Barnabas’ expansive driveway is lined with a manicured lawn, large shade trees, and patches of flowers. In the distance, there’s a garden and an outdoor meeting place. The sun shined on Tobar and birds chirped in the distance, acting as a bittersweet reminder of what was just beyond the church perimeter.

When Garcia arrived and saw Tobar waiting for her, there were tears in Garcia’s eyes as the two women stretched out their arms to embrace. The women held each other, murmuring to one another in Spanish. Once seated, they held hands. When asked what advice she’d give Tobar, Garcia said, “Never lose hope. You will be free again.”