After almost a year’s sanctuary in Philly church, immigrant opens door on new life

Facing deportation, Javier Flores found refuge in Philly's Arch Street United Methodist Church. Now he has a visa, and he's ready to take up life with his two young sons.

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Ten and a half months after he took “sanctuary” in Philadelphia’s Arch Street United Methodist Church, Javier Flores walked back out through a side chapel door.

A short, muscular man in a plaid shirt, he looked a little stunned Wednesday by the wall of cameras that greeted him, as supporters chanted, “Yes, we did it!”

“It was very difficult to see people outside walking with their families, with their kids, and not being able to do that,” he said, after thanking his lawyer, his wife and supporters.

To those advocating immigration changes, he said, “You have to keep fighting, because after the storm comes the calm.”

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The practice of taking sanctuary in U.S. churches hearkens back at least to the 1980s, when churches in Texas harbored immigrants fleeing violent, civil conflict in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Today, a handful of immigrants see it as a last resort to prevent their deportation while seeking a path to stay in the U.S. legally. Flores was the only person in Philadelphia using the tactic at the time of his release.

‘He traded one prison for another’

Originally from Puebla, Mexico, he had repeatedly entered the U.S. without authorization since first arriving in 1997, creating several black marks on his immigration record.

More than two years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement rearrested Flores and put him in line for deportation.

But Flores also had cause for hope.

When two men attacked him with box cutters in Bensalem, Pa.  in 2004, he helped police catch the culprits. That made him eligible for something called a U-visa, for victims of crime. He filed paperwork for that visa in 2015.

While that application was pending, ICE continued trying to deport Flores — sending him to detention centers in Pike and York counties for 16 months, and then releasing him with the warning that he had three months to get ready to leave. His son, Javier Jr., developed post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing his father arrested at gunpoint.

In November, he moved into Arch Street United Methodist.

“He traded one prison for another, essentially, although this one was much more beautiful,” said Brennan Gian-Grasso, Flores’ attorney.

This past year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved his visa request. After carefully weighing his past transgressions against the harm his deportation would cause his family, ICE waived his prior removal orders. Juntos and other immigration advocacy groups also campaigned on his behalf, even driving some of his application materials to the office in Vermont where they would be filed.

ICE officials declined to comment on his specific case, but said in a statement the agency continues to uphold a policy of refraining from arrests in churches and other sensitive places.

Standing in the fresh air, Flores said there’s a lot he wants to do now. Going back to work is one thing.

First up, however, is “to run and play and relax with them,” he said, holding his two young sons.

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