In the face of a deportation order, an Ecuadorian immigrant who came to the United States to flee violence has taken sanctuary in a New Haven church — an act of defiance that was welcomed Tuesday evening by the city’s political representatives and immigration advocates.
The federal government ordered the father of three, Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez of Meriden, to fly back to Ecuador Tuesday. “Instead of going to the airport, he drove instead to New Haven” this morning and took shelter at the First & Summerfield United Methodist Church at College and Elm streets, reported immigrant rights organizer John Lugo of Unidad Latina en Accion, which has worked on Reyes’ case.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters later in the day, Reyes said he’d chosen to seek sanctuary as “his last option.”
“We came to this country with a lot of dreams. It’s very difficult for us to be going through what we’re going through,” Reyes said in Spanish as his son-in-law translated. “Yet here I am, here is my family, here is my community, and here are all of us, people who believe in a better world.”
Reyes came to the U.S. in 1997 with his wife and two children and has worked in construction installing drywall. He has paid taxes since 2002, according to advocates. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him in 2007 for being here without permission. The government issued a deportation order in 2009, but he was won stays of deportation ever since — until now, as the Trump administration has cracked down on those lacking authorization to stay in the country.
At a 5 p.m. press conference in front of the church, a crowd spilled out into Elm and College Streets to wave signs, chant and show support. Mayor Toni Harp said Reyes can count on the Elm City to protect him from immigration authorities.
“Just to be clear, New Haven will remain a sanctuary city,” Harp said to loud cheers. “New Haven will be a welcoming city no matter where you used to live.”
Reyes follows a path forged by another employed, longtime resident and undocumented immigrant, Nury Chavarria. She took sanctuary last month in a Fair Haven church, Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, on the day she had been ordered to leave the country. The community and statewide elected officials rallied around her. On July 26, a judge granted her permission to stay in the country as her case is reopened.
Reyes’s lawyer, Erin O’Neil-Baker, said she is hoping for the same outcome as she pursues two separate administrative appeals and a court case.
The dizzying turn of events, from planning to drop Reyes at a New York City airport at 7:45 a.m. to leaving him sequestered inside a church for the foreseeable future, has taken a visible toll on his family members, who cried and clutched each other’s hands at the church Tuesday.
“Nobody is expecting that [after] living in freedom and having a regular life in this country, one day [authorities are] asking their father to leave this country,” Lugo observed. “I think it’s pretty difficult for the family.”
Around 1 p.m. Tuesday, Reyes’s children spoke to the media in the Methodist church’s sanctuary. Evelyn Reyes said her father had made a “really hard decision” in choosing to move into the building. “It’s hard for him, it’s hard for all of us,” she said. “We’re hanging in there.” The 23-year-old daughter said her father had been inspired by Nury Chavarria. Eveleyn called Nury “a very strong woman.”
A group of elderly churchgoers is handling the logistics of Reyes’s stay. They mobilized after Adeline Tucker, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who’s leading the church’s committee, received a phone call from Paul Fleck, the pastor of Hamden Plains United Methodist Church, at 2:30 a.m. Tucker and others greeted Reyes at the church at 6 a.m.
The committee set up a bed for Reyes and cleared out a Sunday school classroom in the basement where he can meet with visitors. Tucker said the congregation plans to install a portable shower system in a room that has a drain, and parishioners will buy a week’s worth of food at a time.
Throughout the day, Reyes waited in a maroon-carpeted office on the first floor of the offices behind the church. He was joined by his wife Fanny; his son, Anthony, 21; his daughter, Adriana, 12; several in-laws, nieces, nephews and other family and friends.
Out in the hallway, organizers from ULA and the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance (CIRA) managed a deluge of phone calls from reporters, tried to line up politicians for the evening press conference and compiled a list of essentials that Reyes will need during his indeterminate stay. A pastor for Elm City Vineyard Church hauled out unneeded items to open up more space for Reyes to get comfortable.
At the 5 p.m. press conference, advocates spoke of the need to protect one’s neighbors, even if their paperwork isn’t in order. Seemingly emboldened by Chavarria’s success, they argued that concerned citizens must do more for the other families who don’t have a church to flee to or even those who might have a criminal record.
Reyes’ case dates back to 2007. While vacationing with his family, Reyes got lost and inadvertently crossed over the Canadian border. On his way back, immigration authorities stopped him. Two years later, during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, a court issued a deportation order.
In 2010, Reyes tried to reopen his case, requesting a stay from both the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Justice Department’s 17-member panel that conducts “paper reviews” of cases, and a federal judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Both were ultimately denied, according to ICE New England spokesperson Shawn Neudauer.
Reyes tried again in 2016, and a stay of removal was granted while he attempted to pursue further legal recourse. (ICE says it treats stays as a temporary privilege, giving an undocumented immigrant time to plan their departure, fight their case in court, or otherwise get their affairs in order.) Reyes filed another petition to the Board of Immigration Appeals, asking it to reopen his case and grant another stay. His petition was denied.
Reyes reported to a check-in with the agency in Hartford on July 11. With legal options exhausted, agents told him to be out of the country by Aug. 8.
Last week he again petitioned the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen his case and requested another stay of removal. Supporters gathered more than 1,000 signatures over the weekend calling for him to be allowed to stay in the country. But his last appeal for a stay was denied on Monday. That allowed ICE to proceed with the case, Neudauer said.
“A federal immigration judge’s orders cannot be ignored,” Neudauer said. “He has since exhausted his legal options and has been instructed to depart the United States in compliance with the court’s order.”
O’Neil-Baker, who’s been representing Reyes for a week, is attempting to introduce new information she believes could tip the scales in her client’s favor. Back in Ecuador, Reyes’s brother-in-law was murdered, and the killer, who was released from prison in late 2015, has been making death threats against the family, she said. Fearing for her life, Reyes’s niece fled to America last March and filed her own asylum claims.
Those new claims haven’t been heard by government administrators or federal judges, O’Neil-Baker said. She has filed an appeal with the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals asking it to reopen the case. And she has requested that the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services conduct a “credible fear interview.” Either could result in Reyes’ being granted asylum.
But first O’Neil-Baker needs to buy time. In the coming days, she plans to file a motion requesting an emergency stay from a federal appellate court.
“It’s a forward-looking stay: ‘Do not remove this individual. He might have a claim’” with some merit, she explained. “And if there is [an adverse] decision that needs to be reviewed by the Court of Appeals, the individual is still in the country.”
O’Neil-Baker counseled Reyes against seeking sanctuary, because she doesn’t condone disobeying an ICE directive, she said.
Reyes said he made the decision to skirt ICE’s removal order because he feared for his safety and couldn’t bear to leave his children behind.
“I had the difficult decision to seek help to stay here in this holy place. The decision was not a proud one; it was for security — a problem affecting my family in Ecuador, which was presented to the immigration service and wasn’t taken into account,” he said. “On top of that exists the chance that I might never see [my loved ones] again. That’s a very heavy burden for them and, of course, for me.”
In response, ICE declared Reyes a “fugitive.” Neudauer said, “He will be arrested and detained when encountered. At which time, ICE will remove him from the United States.”
For now, Reyes appears to be safe from deportation: ICE has had a policy directing agents not to enter church grounds to make arrests except under special orders from a supervisor or in life-threatening situations.
Reyes’ “tough decision to defy his removal order is a bitter reminder of the reality that immigrants experience every day, as well as a reminder of how urgent it is to continue fighting back as this situation won’t get better if we don’t stand together and organize our communities,” CIRA organizer Jesus Morales Sanchez stated in a release.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal issued a statement saying he’s “outraged and heartbroken by the arbitrary and callous decision to deport Marco Reyes.” He added, “Marco is a hardworking father and husband who has called Connecticut home for two decades without any criminal wrongdoing.”
After the press conference, he told the Independent that the case highlighted the importance of working on comprehensive immigration reform in Washington. “Bottom line,” the senator said, standing next to the church’s columns, “it’s inhumane, arbitrary and cruel.”
Updated at 11:15 p.m. with evening developments. This story was first published in the New Haven Independent.