Oscar Canales becomes the fifth person in sanctuary in North Carolina

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Oscar Canales at home with his family in Greensboro. (photo by Betsy Blake)

Oscar Canales could be considered the face of President Trump’s immigration enforcement policy.

It’s a story that’s become increasingly common over the past 12 months: Immigrants who came to the United States illegally who are otherwise law-abiding are increasingly finding themselves arrested and deported.

The immigration enforcement arrests of what US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE calls “non-criminal immigration violators” surged by 147.4 percent — from 5,498 in 2016 to 13,600 in 2017, according to numbers released by the agency. In comparison, the number of immigration violators who are convicted criminals who are subject to administrative arrest has only slightly risen since the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency — from 24,850 to 26,466, or a 6.5 percent increase.

Trump’s Jan. 25, 2017 executive order eliminating exemptions for immigration enforcement has also resulted in a flood of stories about law-abiding immigrants who were caught under previous administrations and dutifully reported to ICE once a year while continuing their lives in the United States, only to abruptly receive orders for removal after Trump took office. Two of them, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega and Minerva Garcia, went into sanctuary in Greensboro churches in 2017, although Garcia came out in October. Today, Oscar Canales, a Greensboro roofer who was born in El Salvador, officially joins them by taking sanctuary at Congregational United Church of Christ to avoid deportation.

Canales was born in 1983 to parents who were subsistence farmers in the state of La Unión in El Salvador, and joined his aunt in the capital city of San Salvador at the age of 15 to work with livestock. Tired of constantly struggling to get by, Canales and a friend hired a coyote who told them he could get them work permits in the United States in 2005. Canales said he and his friend crossed the Rio Grande during daylight and walked into the Border Patrol under the mistaken belief that they would be given work permits. They didn’t realize the documents they received were not work permits but instead orders to appear in immigration court.

Canales said only after landing a job as a dishwasher at K&W Cafeteria in Greensboro did he have a lawyer look at his documents and learn that he had an immigration hearing. He was convicted in absentia.

Canales continued to work at K&W, where he met his wife. They have two children together, Karen and George, and co-parent his wife’s 17-year-old daughter, Shirley.

Canales started his own company, Canales Roofing, in 2012. He said he has employed about five people, including US citizens, since 2013. He said he’s put roofs on single-family homes, schools and businesses while paying taxes on his earnings.

One day in April 2013, while approaching an intersection on Merritt Drive, Canales said he accidentally let his foot off the brake and rear-ended another driver. Although there were no injuries or visible damage to either of the vehicles, Canales waited with the other driver for the police. Canales said after the Greensboro police officer looked at his Salvadoran ID, he arrested him based on his name matching another person with a criminal record who had the same name. After his booking in the Guilford County Jail, Canales was held in ICE custody in Winston-Salem, York, SC and the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. Eventually, he obtained a stay of removal and was released.

At his annual check-in with ICE on Oct. 26, the authorities seized Canales’ passport and notified him that his deportation order was being reinstated. At a follow-up appointment on Dec. 19, Canales was ordered to leave by Jan. 18.

Canales, who went into sanctuary at Congregational United Church of Christ on Thursday, and his supporters contend that honoring his deportation order would tear apart his family and disrupt a business that provides employment to Guilford County residents.

“Following Jesus means welcoming all, especially those who are targeted and treated unjustly,” said the Rev. Julie Peeples, the senior pastor at Congregational United Church of Christ. “Keeping families together is our way of loving our neighbor and living our faith.”

The church previously provided sanctuary to Minerva Garcia. Another immigrant facing deportation, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, is currently in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, also in Greensboro.

Canales is part of a growing number of immigrants in North Carolina who are taking sanctuary in churches to avoid deportation. The Raleigh News & Observer reported in December that in addition to Juana Tobar Ortega, immigrants staying in churches include Jose Chicas at School of Conversion and Samuel Oliver-Bruno at CityWell United Methodist Church, both in Durham, and Eliseo Jimenez at Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh.

Since 2011, ICE has maintained a policy instructing agents to generally avoid taking enforcement actions at houses of worship, schools, hospitals and other so-called “sensitive locations.”

“By policy, not by law, we still have a sanctuary policy,” Tamara Spicer, an ICE spokesperson in Tampa, Fla., told Triad City Beat today.

“We stand with Oscar and all those who seek sanctuary from unjust immigration polices that tear apart our communities,” said Andrew Willis Garcés, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee. “We’re calling on Representative Budd and all our elected officials to take immediate action for Oscar, and work to change these policies so people do not need to take sanctuary in order to keep their families together.”

Rep. Budd, along with North Carolina’s two senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, did not respond to inquiries about calls for comprehensive immigration reform.

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