ICE detains undocumented dad who took sanctuary in a Denver church

Arturo Hernandez leaves the First Unitarian church in Denver in 2015 after spending nine months living there.

Story highlights

  • Arturo Hernandez has been in the US without proper documents since 2003
  • The 44-year-old father of two took sanctuary in 2014 in a Denver church

New York (CNN)An undocumented Mexican man who once took sanctuary at the same Denver church that is now a focal point of the fiery immigration debate was detained Wednesday by federal immigration agents.

Arturo Hernandez, 44, took refuge in 2014 at the First Unitarian church. The site is now home to Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented mother of four from Mexico who was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People for her efforts to win rights for immigrants. Vizguerra moved into the church in February when a stay on her deportation order was denied.
Hernandez's detention, seven years after he came to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, was cast as routine by the federal agency.
    "Hernandez Garcia has overstayed his original six-month visa by nearly 14 years," an ICE statement reads. "He has exhausted his petitions through the immigration courts and through ICE. He is currently in ICE custody pending his removal."
    Ana Sauzameda, the wife of Arturo Hernandez, attends a protest Wednesday outside the ICE processing center in Colorado after her husband was detained.
    But the American Friends Service Committee, which helps undocumented people find refuge in churches, slammed the move as overreach by the administration of President Donald Trump, who has tightened immigration rules since taking office in January.
    "Nothing has changed in Arturo's life," the organization said. "Everything is the same except this administration, which is focus(ed) on removing all undocumented people and tearing families apart."
    In that vein, Hernandez's detention has drawn activists' attention. Protesters, including Hernandez's wife, gathered Wednesday outside an ICE processing center in Colorado to demand his release. Similar demonstrations have cropped up in recent months after undocumented people with minor criminal entanglements or no police record at all have been detained by ICE after living in the United States for years without authorization.

    Not an 'enforcement priority'

    Hernandez has been in the US since he overstayed a visitor visa in 2003. He has two teenage daughters -- one a US citizen, the other a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented people brought to the US as children to stay in the country for two years to work or study.
    Hernandez came to ICE's attention in 2010, when he was arrested on "local criminal charges," according to the agency. His supporters say he has no convictions.
    Hernandez was told to leave the country by December 2012, according to ICE. He did not, and when several appeals were denied, he sought refuge at the First Unitarian church. Though a church doesn't legally provide added protection from deportation, ICE policy generally discourages arrests at "sensitive locations," including places of worship.
    Hernandez lived in the church for nine months -- getting his daily exercise by walking up and down a flight of stairs -- until he got a letter from ICE telling him he was no longer an "enforcement priority," he said. The church's pastor confirmed to CNN that Hernandez received a letter to that effect. ICE has not responded to CNN's request for further information about the letter.

    'Machine of torture'

    Vizguerra, who now lives at First Unitarian, said Arturo's detention hasn't made her more nervous about her own situation -- but it has made her angry.
    "I am bothered, because I ask myself, 'What is Congress doing?' Who is going to put the brakes on this machine of torture that is this President, without feelings or emotions?" she told CNN Wednesday via Facebook Messenger.
    Vizguerra said she is praying for Hernandez.
    "Hope and faith is never lost," she said, "and God is always present."