Fearing deportation to a native country wracked by violence, an El Salvadoran construction worker announced Wednesday he is seeking sanctuary at a New Orleans church.
Jose Torres was scheduled to appear at a check-in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday morning. Instead, he said he plans to live inside First Grace United Methodist Church in Mid-City indefinitely, hoping to avoid being separated from his two young daughters, who are U.S. citizens.
“I have decided to take sanctuary because I have two babies who need me," he said. "They're destroying me totally as the father of a family. I feel terrible — they're removing me from my daughters' lives. That is why I am fighting against these injustices.”
Torres, 31, is counting on a federal policy that discourages immigration arrests at churches, schools and hospitals.
Thomas Byrd, an ICE spokesman, said the agency's policy "provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations should generally be avoided.”
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will meet with U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions next month to discuss the dispute ove…
Organizers with the Congress of Day Laborers, an immigrant rights group, said they believe Torres is the first person to claim sanctuary at a church in the Deep South since the election of President Donald Trump. Others have sought refuge at churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Illinois since Trump ordered tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
First Grace Pastor Shawn Moses Anglim said Torres has the full support of his church’s congregation. Anglim and a group of other clergy members surrounded Torres as he announced his decision on the church's front steps.
“Today we are all reminded that Jose is my neighbor, and Jose is your neighbor, amen,” Anglim said. “We have been a sanctuary for the undocumented, and today we are glad to say for our city and for our neighbors that we are a sanctuary for Jose.”
Byrd declined to answer questions about Torres' case. But he said that even when ICE allows someone to remain in the U.S. for a period of time, the agency has the discretion to remove them later.
New Orleans is one of several jurisdictions that will have to prove to President Donald Trump's administration that it's complying with federa…
In a tearful interview the night before he made his announcement, Torres said his journey to the U.S. began with a dangerous, weeks-long trip on freight trains through Mexico during which he was robbed and threatened with death. In 2005, he crossed the border illegally by swimming across the Rio Grande River into Texas.
He was quickly apprehended by immigration agents.
After he was released from a detention center, he said, he was forced into unpaid labor by a human trafficker, prevented from challenging a deportation order in immigration court.
The debate over so-called “sanctuary cities” heated up this past week, putting New Orleans among cities in the cross-hairs as President Donald…
“Unfortunately, I’ve never had that opportunity to go before a judge. You could say that opportunity was robbed from me,” he said.
Torres came to New Orleans during the construction boom that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and he and his wife began to build a family. Both of their daughters, ages 2 and 8, have special needs. The younger girl was born prematurely and requires constant medical attention for a seizure disorder, Torres said.
He has been active in the movement to create a "safe space" for day laborers to seek work in Gretna. With cooperation from city authorities, immigrants built a haven for workers under the West Bank Expressway.
But in 2015 Torres made what he said was the biggest mistake of his life: He was arrested for drunk driving. He said he has since paid his fine and had his criminal record expunged. But the arrest nevertheless put him on ICE’s radar.
In 2016, he was detained for four months before his supporters managed to free him, he said. He was granted a stay to remain in the U.S. because of his daughters, according to the Congress of Day Laborers. But he said his last check-in with ICE left him worried that his deportation was imminent.
Ramon Mejilla stood by the curb at the former park-and-ride under the West Bank Expressway in Gretna, waiting for a job to come along.
He has been told to purchase a plane ticket back to El Salvador, he said.
“That country is ensnared in so many problems and so much crime,” he said. “That's why I came here. I am trying to come out ahead and survive, practically. Thank God I've done it. But right now I'm in between my annihilation or remaining with my family."
Torres’ hope for remaining in his daughters' country is a special visa available for victims of human trafficking within the U.S. A pair of lawyers are working to try to secure the document for him, according to Rachel Taber, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers.
With tears streaking down his face, Torres said he dropped his elder daughter off at school for the last time on Tuesday morning.
“I feel destroyed. My heart is stressed, but I know in this world there is justice, and God willing, I see it. This morning, I took my daughter to school, knowing tomorrow I won't be with her,” he said.
“My daughter called me when school got out, asked me, 'Daddy, why didn’t you come to pick me up?' ” he said. “I told her because I wasn't born in this country. I am fighting to stay by her side, but that she should remember that I will always love her.”
Torres said he does not know how long he will stay inside First Grace Church.
"It could be years before things are the same," he said.