Mexican immigrant seeks sanctuary in Center City church

Flores was born in Mexico and lived in Northeast Philadelphia with his wife and three children before he moved into the church.

Javier Flores, originally from Mexico, moved into the Arch Street United Methodist Church on Sunday, seeking sanctuary from deportation.

Until he took refuge in a small basement room of the Center City church, Flores, 40, lived in Northeast Philadelphia with his wife, Alma Sanchez, and their U.S.-born children - a 13-year-old daughter, and sons, 4 and 2.

Flores entered the United States illegally in 1997. Since then, he was deported and reentered illegally multiple times.

In 2015, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him in a raid at his home and sent him to Pike County Correctional Facility, a detention center under contract to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Agents "took him in front of his daughter and oldest son," said Olivia Vazquez, an organizer with Juntos, a South Philadelphia immigrant-support group, which is advocating for Flores. "It affected his kids on an emotional level, and they're still struggling to get through it."

After spending 15 months in Pike, Flores was released 90 days ago, under ICE supervision, and allowed to return to his family to get his affairs in order in preparation for deportation. He was due to surrender Monday, but took refuge in the church.

According to his lawyer, Brennan Gian-Grasso, Flores' reentries "were always in the context that he has U.S. citizen children who are vulnerable and need him."

While in custody in 2015, Flores filed an application for a U-visa, a remedy available to undocumented immigrants who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and agree to assist law enforcement in the prosecution of the crime in which they were injured.

According to police and court records, Flores was the victim of a March 18, 2004, aggravated assault on Knights Road in Bensalem, Bucks County, where brothers Juan and Armando Hernandez, also immigrants from Mexico, stabbed and sliced him with box cutters, causing lacerations for which Flores was hospitalized.

Gian-Grasso said the incident appeared to stem from a failed robbery. His client, he said, cooperated with investigators by describing the assailants, who were quickly arrested, and testifying against them. The brothers pleaded guilty and were turned over to federal agents for deportation.

Flores' multiple reentries have made him "inadmissible" to the United States. To be eligible for the U-visa, he needs a waiver of inadmissibility. But because he reentered so many times, that waiver was denied - twice. In August, his lawyer filed a motion to reopen the case, a thin thread of hope as his deportation looms.

Flores' middle child - also named Javier - faces lasting effects of his father's detention, Flores' advocates say. They say the child was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing his father's arrest. "He doesn't want to go to school," said Vazquez. "If his father had to take a shower, he would stay outside the door until he came out, because he is so afraid."

Saturday night, as young Javier watched his father pack his suitcase to leave for the church, he begged his parents to let him join his father in sanctuary.

"He was like, 'Mom, I want to talk to you. I'm going with my dad. I'm going to be staying with him,'" Vazquez said, interpreting for the family. "He started packing his clothes and everything."

The Rev. Robin Hynicka, who has led the church since 2003, said current immigration policies only serve to "separate families and create trauma and hardship."

"There's an opportunity here for us to keep them together," he said.

Arch Street United Methodist Church has taken in families before, for food insecurity and homelessness, said Hynicka, but never for risk of deportation. "This is a first for us. It feels like we're living our faith."

In 2014, Angela Navarro, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, sought sanctuary at West Kensington Presbyterian Church on Norris Square. Two months later, citing prosecutorial discretion, ICE officials agreed to halt Navarro's deportation for at least two years.

Hynicka said Flores is welcome to live at Arch Street for "as long as he wants to be there."

Mayor Kenney, when he took office in January, restored Philadelphia's status as a sanctuary city, by barring city law enforcement from almost all cooperation with federal immigration agents.

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to strip sanctuary cities of federal funding.

"A lot of us are concerned about Trump's presidency," said Vazquez, "but we can also see how Obama's presidency has left scars on our community. Javier is an example of that."

mwinberg@philly.com

215-854-5915

@mwinberg_