Undocumented immigrant taking refuge in "sanctuary" Cleveland He - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Undocumented immigrant taking refuge in "sanctuary" Cleveland Heights church

Leonore Garcia sought sanctuary in Forest Hill Presbyterian Church Leonore Garcia sought sanctuary in Forest Hill Presbyterian Church
Garcia's son plays at the press conference Garcia's son plays at the press conference
Cleveland Heights city councilman Michael Ungar speaks in support of church, Garcia Cleveland Heights city councilman Michael Ungar speaks in support of church, Garcia

A Cleveland Heights church has declared itself a sanctuary for Leonore Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States illegally from Mexico 20 years ago, and was set to be deported this week.

Forest Hill Presbyterian Church announced Tuesday morning that Garcia will live in the church for the foreseeable future. The church is intended to be a sanctuary from deportation for Garcia.

Garcia has four children who are all American citizens. She lived in Akron before seeking sanctuary, and is not a member of Forest Hill church, but rather someone the pastor heard about needing shelter. 

Garcia spoke briefly at the Tuesday morning press conference, and said in part that “I want to stay here for my family. I want to fight it because I love my family.”

Surrounded by members of the community, and several other faith leaders, Rev. Dr. John C. Lentz, pastor of Forest Hill, said during a press conference that, “separating a mother from her children is not what we do as people of faith, it is not what we as Americans should do either, rather giving women shelter is what we do.”

Three other faith leaders, including a members of the Cleveland branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the pastors of the Disciples Christian Church and Church of the Savior United Methodist, spoke in support of Forest Hill’s move. A Cleveland Heights city council member, Michael Ungar, also spoke in favor of the church’s move. 

“I think that this is the right thing to do. I think that this church is very bold, very courageous and let's be clear about something, folks need to lead by example and that's what this church is doing. Am I suggesting for a moment this is risk-free? The answer is no,” said Ungar. 

Sanctuary is also a tradition in churches, but not protected by law. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy, “…enforcement actions are not to occur at or be focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship…” but that is not absolute, there are exceptions that the agency will make including, if there are “…exigent circumstances related to national security, terrorism, or public safety, or where there is an imminent risk of destruction of evidence material to an ongoing criminal case.”

There is no law stating that churches are sanctuary from deportation.

“The concern of law enforcement breaking in is in the back of my mind,” said Pastor Lentz. “I hope that the issue of equity and justice and fairness is in the back of the minds of law enforcement.”

He went on to make this statement to those who might say that Garcia is breaking the law.

“Well on some level that is right, I think we go back to but how do you feel about separating a mother from her four children,” said Lentz. 

Cleveland 19 reached out to Cleveland Heights City Hall and the Cleveland Heights Police Department for those agencies comment on what the church is doing, they provided this statement.

Cleveland Heights is designated a ‘Welcoming City’. We have a long history of supporting racial and religious diversity and as a community welcoming people from all over the world,” said City Manager Tanisha Briley. “Forest Hill Presbyterian Church is doing what they believe is important to their community and their values."

 [A “Welcoming City” designation is a part of the Welcoming America organization that is guided by the principles of inclusion and creating communities that prosper because everyone feels welcome, including immigrants and refugees. The organization, currently in 100 cities, offers programming and practices that support diversity. Being a “Welcoming City” is consistent with the goal of Cleveland Heights to be an open integrated and diverse community.]

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