Supporters rally behind Minerva Garcia, an undocumented woman who’s been ordered to leave the country by the end of the month.
Minerva Garcia led her son, Eduardo, to a stool in the sanctuary of Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, and then retrieved a classical guitar from a case lying on the floor nearby and placed it in his hands.
Left blind from an encounter with cancer when he was six months old, Eduardo offered up a song, “Faith,” as a kind of prayer for strength during a vigil for immigrants centered on his mother at the church on June 15. With sure hands, he gently strummed a chord progression, and sang with a quavering yet sturdy tenor: “Faith can turn a teardrop into a shining star/ Faith is what I have in you no matter where you are.”
Garcia, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who’s been ordered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to leave the country by the end of the month, will need a lot of faith.
Garcia said she came to the United States because there were no schools in her home state of Guerrero that could accommodate her son as a blind person. She also brought a second son, who died of leukemia at the age of 10, to the United States. Two younger sons, now 6 and 3, were born here. Their father is an American citizen. Garcia said she and the younger boys’ father are still married, but she is separated from him.
“I have tried my whole adult life to be strong for my sons,” Garcia said during the vigil. “I want them to grow up kind, loyal, dedicated and free. I know the chance to be all those things is to grow up here. If I am deported, Eduardo will lose his mother, and I do not know what will happen to my sons. I fear that they will not be safe, and I fear that we will not be safe.”
For several weeks, a coalition of supporters with Winston-Salem Sanctuary City Coalition, Parkway United Church of Christ and Wake Forest Baptist Church have quietly rallied around Garcia, who until recently had been reluctant to publicize her plight. On Monday, her supporters initiated a call-in campaign to ICE, and planned to call US Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, they plan to picket Burr’s Winston-Salem office to plead her case. Tony Ndege, a member of the Winston-Salem Sanctuary City Coalition, said a petition drive requesting that ICE stay Garcia’s deportation has garnered 12,000 signatures. Local elected officials Forsyth County Commissioner Fleming El-Amin and Winston-Salem Councilman Dan Besse, state Sen. Paul Lowe and state Rep. Ed Hanes have spoken out in Garcia’s support.
The Rev. Kelly Carpenter, the pastor of Green Street Church, welcomed about 40 people seated in the pews for what he called “prayers of intercession, prayers of inspiration and prayers of agitation” at the beginning of the June 14 vigil.
Garcia said in an interview after the vigil that it’s not safe for her to take her family back to Guerrero because of violence from drug cartels. She said when she decided to come to the United States, Eduardo was already 5 years old — close to school age — and she couldn’t afford to wait two to three years to get approval to emigrate legally, and besides the process was prohibitively expensive. Although she is still married to an American citizen, by virtue of their separation she can’t ask her husband to sponsor an application for citizenship.
“Minerva really is a symbol of so many things that are wrong with the legal system as far as immigration is concerned,” her lawyer Helen Parsonage said, “and the limitations on a broken immigration system that really has no avenues for people like Minerva and tens of thousands of individuals like her who will be told by folks outside of this community: ‘Well, why don’t they just get their papers? Why don’t they just do things right? And I’m here to tell you and to confirm to you that that’s not possible.”
Garcia has lived in the US for 17 years now, she said, including 11 years working in a warehouse as a machine operator and forklift driver, eventually advancing to team leader. Even though her legal options appear to be exhausted, Garcia said she’s currently not considering the option of taking sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation. Last month, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, who is from Guatemala, took sanctuary in a church in Greensboro, becoming the first person to do so in North Carolina since President Trump’s inauguration.
“Naturally, I hope by [the end of the month] I’ll have an answer, and we won’t have to go there,” Garcia said.
Notwithstanding Garcia’s determination, the Trump administration has signaled a willingness to deport immigrants who’ve committed no other crime than being here illegally. Like many of Trump’s supporters, ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan has stated that he doesn’t recognize the distinction.
“If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Homan told US Rep. David Price (D-NC) during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on June 13. “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”
The Rev. Lia Scholl, pastor at Wake Forest Baptist Church, argued that the current policy presents a false characterization of undocumented immigrants.
“Minerva is the face of deportation today,” Scholl said. “The purpose of this deportation is to create a culture of fear. And they are doing just that — creating a myth that our new neighbors are somehow other than us by telling a lie that our new neighbors are criminals by drawing a picture for us all that is not based in reality. The truth is that Minerva is just like me…. She is a hard-working woman trying to make a better life for her children.”
Homan acknowledged during the June 13 hearing that the new policy has led to a marked increase in the deportation of non-criminal immigrants.
“There has been a significant increase in non-criminal arrests because we weren’t allowed to arrest them in the past administration,” he said. “We were arresting criminals so you see an uptick in criminals — moderate — but you see more of an uptick in non-criminals because we’re going from zero to a hundred under the new administration.”
Helen Parsonage called Garcia “a living example of the change that we have seen in our country in the last six months.” Time after time, Parsonage said, Garcia would visit the local ICE office, and agents would tell her that she hadn’t broken any laws, that she wasn’t a priority, and to just check back in another year. That all changed when Trump became president.
“It’s a really clear-cut example of what has changed in [the new] administration’s priorities,” Parsonage said. “And I’m seeing it time and time and time again — people who’ve been here 17 years, people who’ve been here 20 years, people who’ve been here 30 years, who are being told all of a sudden: ‘You’re not wanted.’ All of a sudden, you need to be worried. All of a sudden you need to be looking over your shoulder. And it makes me sick to my heart to see this happening.”
Lauren Barber contributed reporting for this story.