A Mexican-born undocumented immigrant has moved into a Center City Philadelphia church search seeking sanctuary from immigration authorities.
Javier Flores, 40, has been in the country for nearly 20 years. He has a wife, also undocumented, and three children who were born in the United States.
Flores has been deported three times and returned, making him a high priority for deportation again under immigration policy.
But he has a chance of staying in the country under a U-visa, available to undocumented immigrants who’ve suffered trauma from a crime and have cooperated with police and prosecutors.
His lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, said Flores has applied based on an incident in 2004.
“He was assaulted several times in a parking lot in Bensalem and stabbed several times by two men with box cutters who attacked him,” Gian-Grasso said. “Javier cooperated fully with the Bensalem police department, and ultimately the two people who assaulted him pled guilty.”
Flores would have an easier time getting the visa if it weren’t for his arrests for re-entering the country.
He recently spent more than a year in a detention center as authorities considered his case. He was released for a 90-day period, which has just expired.
Gian-Grasso said Flores is needed to support his family, and he says two of his children have developed mental health problems in part from his absence and detention.
Flores’ wife, Alma Sanchez, said in a brief phone interview that she’s struggling to cope
“What’s happening right now is very hard for me,” she said.
Sanchez said her daughter has attempted suicide, and her 4-year-old son won’t play with his siblings, and says he wants to be in the church with his father.
Flores sought sanctuary at the Arch Street United Methodist Church days before he was to report to immigration authorities. What happens next isn’t clear.
Immigration officials said in a statement they intend to adhere to existing policy “to avoid the apprehension of individuals at sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals, and places of worship, except in emergency circumstances.”
Flores’ move to sanctuary comes as immigrants and immigration activists are wondering what to expect from President-elect Donald Trump, who’s said he’ll immediately begin deporting undocumented immigrants who are criminals.
Gian-Grasso said it’s unclear whether that criteria would apply to Flores, who’s been convicted of re-entering the country illegally, and had a DUI conviction more than 10 years ago.
“He has many, many good things to his credit, and a family that depends on him,” Gian-Grasso said. “You know, the question we’ve never answered through this campaign season and what’s to come in immigration is what happens to these families and these U.S. citizens [such as the Flores children] who are going to suffer.”
Sanchez said she’s troubled by many Americans’ perceptions of undocumented immigrants.
“The authorities think we’re criminals because we crossed the border,” she said. “We didn’t come to rob, or violate the law. We came to work with dignity, which is all Javier has done since he came in 1997.”