A Unitarian church in Denver shields immigrant from deportation

It was standing room only at the First Unitarian Church.

The choir belted out the African American spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” and Dee Galloway, a local poet, took the floor.

“Are you a social justice warrior?” she shouted.

“Yes!” came the response.

“Then stand up! You can’t be a warrior sitting down!”

The audience rose to its feet and began clapping.

Outside, volunteers kept watch on the building and the front door. The police had been by earlier to offer security tips.

This was no ordinary Sunday. For the second time in almost three years, First Unitarian found itself in the national spotlight for offering sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant facing deportation.

The church has been a bastion of liberal thinking since its founding in 1871, opening its doors to the homeless, working for racial equality and caring for destitute families. Members sometimes call themselves “aggressive progressives,” eager to put their faith into action.

They got that chance in 2014 when Arturo Hernandez Garcia spent nine months in the church basement to avoid deportation to Mexico. He left after receiving a letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement saying his case was not a priority.

Last week, Jeanette Vizguerra, 45, a mother of four, skipped an appointment with an immigration officer and sought sanctuary at First Unitarian. Within hours she and the church were the subject of worldwide media attention.

Her case has taken on a new urgency following plans announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to dramatically increase deportations of unauthorized immigrants, focusing on those with criminal records of any sort. The Obama administration had focused primarily on felons who posed a threat to public safety.

This month, a Phoenix woman with a felony charge for using fake papers to get a job was deported after meeting with federal officers for a scheduled check-in.

Vizguerra has two misdemeanors: one for presenting false documents to police after a traffic stop for expired tags, and another for entering the country illegally after returning from her mother’s funeral in Mexico.

“In a country that respects the rule of law, the punishment should fit the crime,” said the pastor, Michael Morran. “A misdemeanor is community service or probation, but their punishment is to rip her away from her children and community, which is morally obscene.”

When First Unitarian began exploring the idea of protecting undocumented immigrants three years ago, debates erupted among the 430 members. There were questions of legal responsibility, zoning, building codes and security.

Legal experts were called in. Finally, the church decided to let each side argue its case and then hold a vote.

“We didn’t realize how many supporters we had until we saw them all lining up to speak,” said Kat Parker, a member of the church sanctuary committee. “We ended up with more than 70% of the votes.”

After taking in Garcia, the congregation discovered how fiendishly complex the immigration system could be.

“Arturo living here profoundly changed us,” Morran said. “We were appalled by what we learned. We have created an impossible immigration system that puts people in impossible situations, and then we berate them for being in that impossible situation.”

Since First Unitarian began sheltering Vizguerra, it has received $9,000 in donations, and the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, which works with the church, took in $4,000.

Robert Raak, 55, came through the front door the other day and handed a church member $50.

“This is the first time I have ever done this,” he said. “All this talk about mass deportations is pretty scary. But if we don’t take action, who will?”

Fear of President Trump’s policies and a desire to resist them has sparked a surge of interest in progressive congregations.

The Rev. Wayne Laws, social justice minister for Mountain View United Church of Christ in the Denver suburb of Aurora, said his quarterly vigils outside a federal immigration detention center usually drew 20 or 30 people but recently had 150.

First Unitarian saw 45 people join the church in the last six weeks, a significant jump from the usual handful each month.

Meanwhile, 33-year-old Ingrid Encalada Latorre of Peru, who is also facing deportation, has been in sanctuary at the Mountain View Friends Meeting House, a Quaker church in Denver, since November.

“There have always been people who were sympathetic to our cause, but now they are actually doing something,” said Dan Moen, a Unitarian sanctuary coordinator.

The Unitarians have a long history of activism. They fought slavery, and several members were killed during civil rights protests in the 1960s. In 1971, Beacon Press, founded by the American Unitarian Assn., published the Pentagon Papers — detailing deceptions over the U.S. role in the Vietnam War — in book form.

“People associate us with causes that protect the most vulnerable,” said the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Assn., which is headquartered in Boston and doesn’t adhere to a specific belief system but rather core principles of justice, equity and compassion.

He said church attendance had increased since Trump’s election, and he was getting calls every day from congregations looking to offer sanctuary.

If that makes him or his church a political target, so be it, he said: “If the most reactionary, hateful elements of our society see me as an enemy, I consider that an honor.”

Back at First Unitarian, Vizguerra spends her days padding around and taking calls from journalists and activists from around the world.

She left Mexico with her husband in 1997, found work as a janitor and later opened a cleaning business. Three of her children were born in the U.S. and the fourth, who was born in Mexico and crossed the border with his parents, is in the country legally under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

As the years went by, Vizguerra began organizing and helping other immigrants. In 2012, she and a Quaker group co-founded the Denver Sanctuary Coalition.

But she never thought she'd need it herself.

“I want to confront this openly where everyone knows what is happening,” she said in Spanish. “I don’t want to leave here and go into hiding.”

Critics have attacked her poor English and say falsifying a Social Security card makes her a criminal. Threats have been made against the church, causing it to increase security.

“I paid my taxes for 20 years, unlike Trump,” she said. “Look at his character. He insults women, he insults Mexicans, he insults everyone. Who has the better moral character?”

A few hours later, about 200 demonstrators appeared outside the church and began chanting.

“Jeanette belongs here! Jeanette belongs here!”

Vizguerra came out. Someone draped an American flag over her shoulder. She hugged her 12-year-old daughter, Luna.

Kelly is a special correspondent.

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An earlier version of this article referred to the American Unitarian Assn. as the American Unitarian Society.

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