PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
Jose Torres addresses a crowd outside First Grace United Methodist Church, which has offered him sanctuary following attempts from immigration authorities to deport him.
When he was 18 years old, Jose Torres fled violence in El Salvador and later arrived in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. On Nov. 15, he was scheduled to appear for a check-in appointment at the New Orleans office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where immigrant advocates say agents planned to hand him a ticket out of the country to “self-deport.”
But on Nov. 15, Torres — standing among immigrant advocates and local faith leaders, along with his two U.S.-born daughters, ages 2 and 8 — announced First Grace United Methodist Church would provide Torres sanctuary.
“I’m tired of being punished over and over, for one reason: for being an immigrant,” Torres said through tears. “It’s time for our immigrant community to rise up, to lift up our voices, and demand respect from this country.”
First Grace — which also provides meeting space for the immigrant advocacy group Congress of Day Laborers and offers shelter to women and children through Hagar’s House — will provide Torres “a safe place to be in our community and have some degree of safety,” Pastor Shawn Anglim told Gambit.
“You remember that you were once in that place, you were once treated as a foreigner, as strange, as a stranger. Being a human being means providing a space for people who once felt that way,” he said. “The word ‘sanctuary’ is to harbor, to protect, and that’s what we’re doing here for Jose.”
After enduring forced labor on a Texas ranch upon arrival in the U.S., Torres was threatened by his employer, who Torres says planned to alert police to deport him. Torres fled to New Orleans, where he worked in construction “shoulder to shoulder” with New Orleans residents and laborers to rebuild the city following the levee failures.
But immigration authorities placed him in detention and sought his deportation after Torres received a DUI in 2013, for which Torres received probation, paid fines and completed community service and substance abuse counseling. Torres previously had sought a visa as a survivor of human trafficking and had been granted a stay of deportation to remain with his family in the U.S.
“I did everything possible to mend my error. I complied with everything asked of me, just like anyone who respects the law and authority of this country,” Torres said. “I have the right to remain here in New Orleans with my family and all the great people of New Orleans.”
He says ICE knows about his younger daughter’s chronic health issues, including seizures, “but they don’t care.”
“They’ve already tried to punish us over and over again,” he said. “I’m a father, and I know there isn’t a parent out there who would take being separated from their children lightly.”
Local faith leaders and First Grace parishioners had gathered on the steps of the church, which included “Jose Is My Neighbor” on banners and on its sign facing the busy Mid-City intersection at Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway. Torres' supporters chanted "sin papeles, sin miedo"
— "no papers, no fear" — and ceremoniously walked Torres into the church, where he was greeted with hugs and handshakes.
Deportations have increased as much as “380 percent” in 2017, according to Congress of Day Laborers, the immigration advocacy group under the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. Anglim says the rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies stemming from the administration of President Donald Trump threaten vulnerable communities painted as threats by the administration.
Following Trump’s election, “our communities have fallen into a nightmare,” said Leficia Casildo, as translated by Congress of Day Laborers organizer Chloe Sigal.
“The ‘threat’ is this dangerous spirit in the land that’s become normalized, that’s destabilizing the lives of children,” he said. “The community must offer a compassionate and prophetic way forward.”
“Donald Trump is stirring the pot,” said First Grace member Fred Roberts. “I don’t know what’s he trying to make but we know he’s not the chef. … Our church is simply doing what congress refuses to do.”
Torres’ pastor Rachel Ringlaben of Kenner’s Mesa Abierta said communities must embrace “living sanctuaries” for its most vulnerable. “Our faith compels us to stand in solidarity,” she said.
Torres also called for strengthening anti-bias policing policies in New Orleans and expanding those protections to Kenner and Jefferson Parish.
“Our families are being separated and our children, despite being U.S. citizens, are being denied their right to their family,” Casildo said. “We're done with crying. … We’re trying to contribute, we’re here, just like every other person living in this country, trying to live in peace with our families, and we’re going to fight for that right … We are not the root of this country’s problems, and we’re not going to allow that narrative to be told.”
First Grace and the Congress of Day Laborers also plan a rally to support Torres outside the church at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16.
“It’s time to put an end to the deportation machine of Donald Trump,” Torres said. “Hate has become so strong. It’s blinded people. It’s shut their eyes. And people are forgetting, before the eyes of God, we are all the same.”