Deportation stay denied, woman continues to live in Cleveland Heights church

Pastor Lentz leaves the ICE building after stay application denied
Pastor Lentz leaves the ICE building after stay application denied
Group of protesters carry signs supporting Leonor Garcia
Group of protesters carry signs supporting Leonor Garcia
Leonor Garcia outside of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, September 12, 2017
Leonor Garcia outside of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, September 12, 2017

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, OH (WOIO) - A stay of deportation was not accepted Monday for a woman who sought sanctuary in a Cleveland Heights church more than two months ago.

Leonor Garcia has lived in the Forest Hills Presbyterian church since Sept. 12.

She is currently wearing an ankle bracelet from Immigration and Customs Enforcement enabled with GPS tracking technology.

She has lived in the United States for about 20 years.

She was set to be deported in September, days before she sought sanctuary in the church.

Sanctuary is a tradition in churches, but not protected by law.

Monday, the pastor of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, John Lentz, attempted to turn in an application for a stay of deportation on Garcia's behalf.

"It is our hope and our expectation that sometime within the next week or so Leonor should be free to return home," Lentz said.

He was joined by dozens of people, who waited outside the office, holding signs with messages of support for Garcia.

Pat Denny was one of those people.

"It's right out of scripture things like this," Denny said while gesturing to the sign she was holding. "We were all strangers in a strange land and we were welcomed."

"After contributing to our community for so many years why would the government want to deport her," another supporter Brian Rice said.

Lentz was only in the local office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a few minutes. The application wasn't accepted because Garcia wasn't physically there to submit her application.

"I asked if [the ICE agent] could give me assurance that if Leonor came to present this application she would not be detained and he said no I cannot give you that assurance, and in fact I asked him if we brought her in would you detain her and he said yes," Lentz said.

Cleveland 19 found documentation dating back several years stating that applications for stays of deportation have to be submitted in person.

Lentz said, despite a memo guiding ICE agents to avoid making arrest in "sensitive" locations like churches, he is sure that something like that won't happen.

"I don't know, I will rely on their repeated assurance that they will follow the memo of the Obama administration that churches are special status in terms of protection so we will hold them accountable, but after witnessing the stonewall and the ice face today I think all bets are off. I have no idea," Lentz said.

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.

Cleveland 19 asked Lentz about how the church could be thought to be breaking the law by offering sanctuary to Garcia in the first place.

"Well it's a good point to a certain extent, that's not incorrect, but I think throughout history in the face of injustice it takes faithful people pushing against the law and in fact breaking it," Lentz said. "That kind of argument wears very thin and I think we have historic precedent on our side."

Cleveland 19 has reached out to ICE for a comment, but no one responded Monday. Previously ICE representatives have said that they do not comment on specific cases.

Lentz said the church is committed to allowing Garcia to live in the church for as long as she needs to.

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