Seven months after immigrant finds sanctuary in Philly church, supporters start trek for help

 Javier Flores has been taking sanctuary in Arch Street Methodist Church for 7 months. Advocates are road-tripping to VT demanding USCIS hear his case. (Katie Colaneri / WHYY)

Javier Flores has been taking sanctuary in Arch Street Methodist Church for 7 months. Advocates are road-tripping to VT demanding USCIS hear his case. (Katie Colaneri / WHYY)

Nearly seven months after an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico took sanctuary in a Philadelphia church, advocates are hitting the road in hopes of getting the federal government to act on his case.

Members of Javier Flores Garcia’s family and the immigrant rights group Juntos are taking a four-day roadtrip in a borrowed church van, stopping at congregations in New York City and Boston to tell Garcia’s story and to gather petition signatures.

Their final destination is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Saint Albans, Vermont that could be deciding his fate.

“I’m hoping to make them read my dad’s papers, to see his case, so there could be a possibility that he could stay with us and finally come out of here,” said Garcia’s 13-year-old stepdaughter, Adamaris Lopez.

Garcia has crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally three times. In November, he was on temporary leave from a detention center in Pike County, Pennsylvania when he decided to take sanctuary in Arch Street United Methodist Church, one block from Philadelphia City Hall.

But Garcia, his family and supporters have hope he will one day be allowed to live in the U.S. legally.

That hope stems from a dark moment in Garcia’s past. In 2004, two men stabbed him with boxcutters and he helped Bensalem police find the two perpetrators who eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and were later deported back to Mexico.

Knowing his attackers are there, along with poverty and unemployment, Garcia’s longtime partner, Alma Lopez said the family is fighting to keep him from being deported to Mexico again.

He has applied for a special, temporary “U visa” for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. But first, Garcia needs a waiver of inadmissability because of his prior deportations. His attorney, Brennan Gian-Grasso said Garcia has been denied such a waiver twice before and his current waiver application has been pending since August.

“It’s been almost two years since they petitioned for the U visa and it is yet to be officially heard by the courts,” said Erika Almiron, Juntos’ executive director. “And so we’re hoping that he is able to get before the courts sooner rather than later because this is starting to get overwhelming being in sanctuary.”

Together, Juntos and Arch Street U.M.C. have been working together to raise money to support Garcia, Lopez and their three children, including furnishing a makeshift basement apartment for him in the church. 

Over the last few months, Garcia’s case has garnered national attention, with interviews on ABC and CBS. 

This week’s roadtrip, advocates said, is an attempt to continue raising awareness about Garcia’s situation. As of Monday afternoon, an online petition had more than 650 petition signatures of support. On Thursday morning, the caravan plans to hold a vigil outside the USCIS office in Saint Albans, Vermont — one of two federal service centers that review and process U visas — and to hand-deliver the petitions.

In a statement, USCIS spokeswoman Anita R. Moore said the agency could not comment on individual cases and does “not provide in-person services at the Vermont Service Center, including receipt of hand delivered packages.”

“This is a liberation movement,” said the Rev. Robin Hynicka, pastor of Arch Street U.M.C. “It’s not running away in fear. It’s about stepping up for all those folks who are in a position in this time in history who are the victims of an immigration system that is unjust.”

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