It ain’t heaven, the reverend said, but it’s habitable.
Fifteen years in this country, fighting deportation for the last four, out of legal options and stuck in place in the absence of immigration reform, Hernández Garcia figured the only way he could stay safe and remain close to his family was to seek sanctuary. The First Unitarian Society of Denver welcomed him by tying two ropes to the outer handles of the heavy front doors of the church and then putting the ends of those ropes in the hands of waiting congregation members who, in unison, pulled and swung the doors wide open.
Since then, Hernández Garcia has had a steady stream of visitors bearing food and well wishes. His wife visits him every day, usually accompanied by their two daughters. He has not left the church since Oct. 21. His youngest daughter, a 9-year-old born in Colorado, cannot fully understand why her father is staying in the basement of a city church when their home is in Thornton, just north of the city. My family needs me, he says.
On Tuesday night, Hernández Garcia sat in his room to watch the election returns. He’s lived in Colorado for 15 years, long enough to come to terms with the way in which this purple state, a blend of Democratic and Republican voters, embraces him with one hand and pushes him away with the other. He worried that the state legislature and governor’s seat would go to Republicans, tilting Colorado the hardline way of Arizona. That night, the Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, managed to cling to his seat.
But it was not a good night for Hernández Garcia. He awakened Wednesday to the realization that his prospects for legal residency now lie with a Republican Congress propelled by a small, but mighty voter base hostile toward his dream of American citizenship and a president who has had six years to deliver on immigration reform and has failed.
“He promises and promises, you know, but I have to hope that now he will do something,” Hernández Garcia says.
In Washington on Wednesday, there was much gnashing of teeth and many vows of resolve among Latino groups and immigrant advocates as they dissected the election results. In a crowded room at the National Press Club, heavy hitters from Latino, labor, immigration and voter advocacy groups said Democratic candidates made a fundamental miscalculation in persuading Obama to renege on his promise to use his executive powers to address immigration before the election. All that backtracking did was sap much-needed enthusiasm from a key swing voting population that has a long record of lackluster midterm turnout.
Gary Segura, the political director and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, pointed out that in both 2010 and 2012, the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats made moves to improve opportunities for those living here illegally, including the president’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Both moves paid off with Latino voters, Segura said.
And, yet, in the 2014 campaigns, the president and Democrats grew skittish.
“Some people don’t learn from their failures,” he said. “The Obama administration doesn’t learn from its successes.”
Latino voters still prefer Democrats to Republicans by large margins, but that gap narrowed to 28 percentage points in 2014 from 38 percentage points in 2012, according to national polling. Latino Decisions’ election-eve survey of high-propensity Latino voters also showed waning support for Democratic House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates. “They all tell the exact same story,” Segura said. “A sea of decline.”
With the exception of Nevada, where a Latino Republican governor did very well among Latinos, little evidence exists that Latinos who previously voted Democrat switched their votes to Republican, Segura said. Instead, many just didn’t vote.
The economy and education typically top Latino voter concerns, but a Latino Decisions telephone poll conducted before the election found that 45 percent of 4,200 high-propensity Latino voters and 200 Latino nonvoters said immigration was the most important issue facing the Latino community. Nearly six in 10 told the group’s pollsters that they knew an unauthorized immigrant.
So, the call went out Wednesday, as it will again today in communities across the country, for the president to act. In his press conference Wednesday, the president promised to do just that before year’s end. The Republican leadership responded with a “we wouldn’t do that if we were you” warning.
Legislation can offer a permanent solution, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. But the notion that this new Congress will enact comprehensive immigration reform, giving the president “a victory on the way out of town,” he said, “is ridiculous.” Obama, Sharry said, “should take steps within his legal authority that protect as many people as possible as steppingstones to the day when we have a Congress that will pass immigration reform.”
The Rev. Mike Morran tires of politics. His congregation of 300 families is the first in Colorado to provide sanctuary to an unauthorized immigrant under threat of deportation. And Hernández Garcia is the first it has sheltered. The church did so, Morran says, because Hernández Garcia is what the United States should value: a small-business owner, a taxpayer, the father of a citizen, the son-in-law of a citizen, a 42-year old man with no criminal record, longtime residency and the testimony of many who vouch for his character.
“I don’t think we should be making these kinds of decisions that affect the lives of tens of thousands based on political calculations,” Morran says. “This is a moral issue. This is a justice issue.”
For its part, Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that Hernández Garcia agreed to leave America voluntarily by Dec. 1, 2012, and did not, which triggered a deportation order. (Hernández Garcia’s supporters note he did not leave because he was exercising his right to appeal his immigration case and exhaust all legal remedies, which he has now done. Hence, sanctuary.) Immigration does not generally enforce deportation orders at schools or churches.
On Thursday, the church will hold a press conference calling upon the president and Congress to act. Hernández Garcia plans to speak. He says he’s going to say that unauthorized immigrants are here, living, working, contributing to a “country that wants us for our labor but doesn’t want to recognize our full humanity.”
He says he is going to say there are thousands of families like his who have been separated or are in danger of separation through deportation. When Obama says he will take action by the end of the year, Hernández Garcia says, he – they — are hoping against hope that this time the president means it.