How a Community Protected an Undocumented Mother from ICE
In early May 2017, Minerva Garcia was living a quiet life in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, working in a factory and taking her two younger sons, then ages 3 and 6, to the park. It was the ordinary peace she'd dreamed of 17 years earlier when she immigrated from Mexico with her oldest son, then 5; he's blind, and coming to America was the only way she could send him to school. Though Garcia was undocumented, she'd always tried to follow the rules of her adopted country, paying taxes using a government-issued individual taxpayer ID number and eventually checking in regularly with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Then she received a letter: ICE was ordering her back to Mexico.
"My youngest sons were born in America, so the only person going back would be me," she says. "I'd never see my children again." Hoping for more time to build her case, she sought refuge at Congregational United Church of Christ in nearby Greensboro; because ICE doesn't typically raid "sensitive locations" like houses of worship, she hoped she and her children would be safe.
"How could we not open our doors to her?" says Reverend Julie Peeples, the church's senior pastor. "We follow God, who in scripture tells us to welcome the stranger. Every week we were hearing more stories about people in our communities who were living in fear. No matter where you are politically, we should not stand for families being torn apart." The congregation immediately rallied, donating furniture and groceries, installing a shower and creating two bedrooms: one for Garcia and her family, the other for a rotating shift of volunteers who kept watch around the clock. "We trained everyone how to respond in case anyone came to the door claiming to be ICE," says Peeples. "What a federally signed warrant looks like, who to call."
Garcia was suddenly a national news story, appearing at a press conference and speaking to reporters. At night, she was afraid to put the trash outside because she feared ICE was watching, but she kept busy making jewelry that she sold to the women of the church. "I learned to appreciate the freedom to enjoy wherever you are," says Garcia, "every little thing around you." Meanwhile, more than 15,000 people signed a Change.org petition to allow her to stay in the country. "We got some hateful calls, but the supportive ones outnumbered them 10 to 1," says Peeples. "There were people who walked through the door to give us checks."
She Has a Dream
On October 2, Garcia got a call from her lawyer: A federal judge had vacated her deportation order. After nearly 100 days in the church basement, she could finally walk outside. Her future is still uncertain, but her struggle is bigger than just her story, Garcia says: "I want to keep fighting for human rights. In Mexico, gangs and cartels don't let you build anything, but here you're free to work for your dreams. I want other Hispanic women to have that opportunity."