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Family and community mourn couple killed in Kern County crash while fleeing ICE

Family and community mourn couple killed in Kern County crash while fleeing ICE
The brothers of Santos Hilario Garcia, along with his six children and relatives grieve during funeral services at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano for Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Perfecto, who were killed when their car overturned while fleeing federal immigration agents. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Outside of a Delano church, the children draped their bodies over the caskets that held their parents, tears streaming down their faces.

They were about five miles from the site where their parents had fatally crashed while fleeing from immigration agents last month.

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The six sons and daughters were joined by nearly 400 others who packed Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Monday morning for the funeral services of Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Perfecto.

"Marcelina and Santos were hard workers who only wanted to provide for their family. Like many other immigrants, they were farmworkers — people who lifted up this country," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America. "We want to ensure that the deaths of Marcelina and Santos are not in vain. This tragedy has shown this country that the inhumane politics of this administration destroy families."

The oldest child, second from left, of Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Perfecto mourns with her siblings, left, and relatives during the funeral services at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano.
The oldest child, second from left, of Santos Hilario Garcia and Marcelina Garcia Perfecto mourns with her siblings, left, and relatives during the funeral services at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Delano. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

On the morning of March 13, deportation officers had arrived at a residence that they believed belonged to a previously removed Mexican citizen, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori Haley. A man "matching the target's description" left the residence and got into a car. After agents stopped the car and tried to contact the driver, the car sped off, Haley said.

Agents later came across the vehicle, which had struck a utility pole and overturned, and called local authorities. Garcia, 35, and his wife, Perfecto, 33, who were in the country illegally, were both killed.

Garcia, who was convicted in 2014 of driving under the influence, was voluntarily returned to Mexico three times between 2008 and 2017, Haley said. Perfecto had no prior encounters with ICE.

Though Garcia matched the description of the arrest target, he was not the same individual, according to ICE.

"It gets worse and worse to know that, by irony, they're not the ones they were looking for — but because of [ICE's] job, they are doing what they do and everybody is in their net," said Jim Grant, director of social justice ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, who attended the funeral services. "Therefore the couple knows they still have to flee and then there's this result — two deaths that need not have happened."

Federal agents conducted a large-scale immigration sweep through the Central Valley in February, arresting hundreds — including some farmworkers — suspected of being in the country without legal status.

ICE Director Thomas Homan has defended his agency's enforcement efforts, pointing instead to California's "sanctuary" policies, which limit cooperation between local and federal law enforcement.

In a previous statement to The Times, Homan said those policies have forced the agency to make arrests in communities rather than in jails, "which poses increased risks for law enforcement and the public … and also increases the likelihood that ICE will encounter other illegal aliens who previously weren't on our radar."

Garcia and Perfecto had been in the U.S since 2003. The pair were originally from Guerrero, Mexico, and mainly spoke Mixtec, an indigenous language.

Throughout the Mass, attendees spoke a mix of Spanish, English and Mixtec. Although some of those who attended did not know the couple, many said they could relate to their story.

"It could happen to anyone of us," said Delano resident Susana Ortiz. "People are scared, because they're leaving their kids and they don't know if they're going to come back."

Former and current farmworkers, as well as classmates, turned out to show their support for the couple's children.

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Victoria Lennon, 17, attends school with one of the couple's daughters and is on the track team with her.

"This was definitely a situation in which I wanted to make sure that I was there for her and that she knew there were people who cared and she wouldn't be alone," Victoria said. "The people here are very caring, very giving, very family oriented. People stick together when things go down."

Throughout the service, the couple's oldest daughter, who is 18, cried often, as did her three younger sisters and two younger brothers. The family declined to speak to the media.

As the service came to a close and the caskets were opened, the children saw their parents for the first time since their deaths and wept. Someone had placed a photo of the couple in each casket.

In Garcia's were the words, "Querido Padre" and in Perfecto's, "Querida Madre." Beloved father. Beloved mother.

When the caskets were placed inside hearses, family members released white balloons.

Delano Mayor Grace Vallejo then joined the family for a procession to a nearby reception.

"I hope that this trickles up to the federal government and they learn that they are literally causing deaths of people — that's my hope," Vallejo said. "But the reality is, if Trump's administration has not listened to the pleas and breakup of families and everything going on, if he hasn't listened by now, I doubt he's going to listen."

Times staff writer Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.

Twitter: @brittny_mejia

UPDATES:

7:15 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from people who attended the funeral services and from an ICE official.

This article was originally published at 3:10 p.m.

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