Shared from the 6/6/2017 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition

Road Home

Caravan aims to make undocumented immigrant legal.

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Javier Flores Garcia has lived at Arch Street United Methodist Church since November as he seeks refuge from deportation to Mexico. On Monday, his backers began a “Caravan for Freedom” to New England to support his cause. AVI STEINHARDT

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Javier Flores Garcia does not leave the church for fear of being nabbed by agents.

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Alma Romero and her children Javier Jr. and Adamaris, with the Rev. Robin Hynicka, board a van at Arch Street United Methodist Church to begin their “Caravan for Freedom.”

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Javier Flores Garcia and his wife, Alma Romero, say goodbye at the doorway of the Arch Street United Methodist Church. AVI STEINHARDT

Last November, Javier Flores Garcia’s world shrank to the size of a basement room at Arch Street United Methodist Church as he sought refuge from impending deportation to Mexico.

The 40-year-old married father of three, an undocumented immigrant who first sneaked into the United States in 1997, has lived in the Center City house of worship ever since, not daring to step outdoors for fear of being nabbed by federal agents.

On Monday, though, at least his case emerged from the sanctuary shadows.

Ten of Garcia’s supporters set out from the church on a “Caravan for Freedom,” in the hope that a publicity blitz and four-day “freedom ride” from Philadelphia to New England might help persuade U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to grant his pending petition for legal residency.

“We are taking this moment to leave Philadelphia, which is supposed to be a place of liberty, on a mission we hope will liberate [families like Garcia’s] from a set of policies that have, for the most part, discriminated, oppressed, and left people in the cold,” said the Rev. Robin Hynicka, the pastor and part of the traveling contingent.

Dressed in gray sweatpants, a white T-shirt, and rubber sandals, Garcia listened through an interpreter. Rather than making their farewells on the sidewalk, the group had to gather in the safety of a fellowship room.

While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can make arrests anywhere, they generally have avoided churches, schools, and hospitals, which the federal government labels “sensitive locations.”

When it was Garcia’s turn to speak, his eyes welled with tears. “Thank you,” he said in Spanish. “Your support gives me strength.”

Among the small crowd there for the send-off were City Councilwoman Helen Gym and Sandra Garcia, a Latino affairs adviser for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.). “These freedom riders,” said Gym, “establish a moral presence for how we are going to have discussions about the central values of the country.”

By late morning, the passengers — including Garcia’s wife, Alma Romero, and their three U.S.-born children, daughter Adamaris, 13, and sons Javier Jr., 5, and Yael, 3 —were boarding a 15-seat van lent by Thorndale United Methodist Church for the drive from Philadelphia to the federal government’s visa processing center in St. Albans, Vt., where Garcia’s case is pending.

They expect to arrive Thursday, after stops at sanctuary-oriented churches in New York, Boston, and Burlington, Vt. Along with bringing national attention to the case, they intend to collect letters of support to deliver in St. Albans. They have more than 200 already, plus 600 signatures on an online petition.

Anita Rios Moore, a USCIS public affairs officer, said in a statement that it is the policy of the agency not to discuss individual cases. She said the Vermont service center is “a mail-based facility” not equipped to accept hand-delivered packages.

Earlier, Hynicka acknowledged that the road trip might have no legal effect, but said it was a “chance to shape public opinion by presenting a loving father, who, though undocumented, really is a good citizen of any community he has been a part of.”

Garcia, who worked as a landscaper, became entangled with immigration enforcement after he illegally entered the U.S. 20 years ago, was deported a decade later, and recrossed the border several times afterward. In 2015, ICE agents arrested him at his home in Northeast Philadelphia and sent him to Pike County Correctional Facility, a detention center under contract to ICE.

After 15 months, he was released last August on the condition that he periodically check in with ICE, which gave him three months to arrange his affairs in preparation for deportation. On the eve of the November day he was supposed to surrender to authorities, he sought sanctuary at the church.

Hynicka said then that the church had previously sheltered homeless families and people facing food insecurity, but no one at risk of deportation. “This is a first for us,” he said. “It feels like we’re living our faith.”

Garcia’s lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, was not present for the caravan launch Monday. He said in November that Garcia’s reentries “were always in the context that he has U.S.-citizen children who are vulnerable and need him.”

While in custody in 2015, Garcia filed an application for a U-visa, a benefit available to undocumented immigrants who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse, and agree to assist law enforcement in the prosecution of the crime in which they were injured.

According to police and court records, he was the victim of a March 18, 2004, aggravated assault on Knights Road in Bensalem, where brothers Juan and Armando Hernandez, also immigrants from Mexico, stabbed and sliced him with box cutters, inflicting lacerations for which Garcia was hospitalized.

Gian-Grasso said the incident appeared to stem from a failed robbery. Garcia, he said, cooperated with investigators by describing the assailants, who were quickly arrested, and by testifying against them. The brothers pleaded guilty and were turned over to federal agents for deportation.

But Garcia still had a problem. The reentries made him inadmissible to the United States, so to be eligible for the U-visa, he needed a waiver of inadmissibility, which was denied. In August, Gian-Grasso filed a motion to reopen the case, which his supporters plan to spotlight in a vigil outside the visa center in St. Albans.

Standing in the doorway of the church as he watched the van pull away, Garcia said he felt “psychologically broken.” “Hopefully,” he said, “they’ll be back in a few days. I’ll be here waiting.” mmatza@phillynews.com

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@MichaelMatza1

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