RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – An undocumented immigrant facing deportation from North Carolina spent Thanksgiving with his family thanks to a Raleigh church.
Eliseo Jimenez entered into protective sanctuary at Umstead Park United Church of Christ in October as his case continues. Attorneys are fighting a deportation order, hoping to allow the Greensboro construction worker can stay in the country with his American-born children.
Jimenez is the fourth undocumented immigrant to enter protective sanctuary in North Carolina and the first in Raleigh. Some other Triangle-area congregations are considering opening the doors in the same way.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a policy to not make arrests in sensitive locations such as places of worship, schools, and hospitals. UPUCC held a congregational vote earlier this fall about offering protective sanctuary. About 94 percent voted in favor.
“I voted yes for sanctuary because I believe that even undocumented immigrants are part of the fabric of this country, and they should be granted a path to become legal citizens here,” Elliot Acosta said.
Acosta, his wife, and their son were among about two-dozen church members who joined Jimenez and his family at the church Thursday for a Thanksgiving feast. Jimenez is unable to leave the building, and is helping with handyman tasks inside the church as a way of staying active and giving back. His wife, 4-year-old son, and 5-year-old daughter come to the church on weekends and holidays.
“It’s been described by some people as self-incarceration, basically,” sanctuary host volunteer coordinator Gary Sanders said. “I thought it would be a good thing to do to come and spend Thanksgiving dinner here with Eliseo and his family.”
Jimenez came to the United States when he was 17 in order to get away from his abusive father in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. He said he feared for his own safety, and a cousin offered to pay his way across the border and to provide some starting out money. He landed in North Carolina.
Alamance County deputies arrested him in 2007 while doing immigration checks at a roadblock. He was deported, but made his way back into the United States several weeks later in order to be reunited with two children who are now young adults. He is now fighting to stay in the country to care for his two youngest children. He said protective sanctuary is hard, as he is not used to be stuck in one place, but it is worth it.
“It’s a sacrifice I was going to take. It’s not just for me. It’s for my kids,” he said. “I decided to stay and fight for my case and fight for their rights to be here, for their rights to have a better future, a better life, better education, better healthcare.”
He does not want to go back to Mexico because of a fear he might be targeted by drug cartels, which go after people who return from the United States. He said a cartel kidnapped and held for ransom one of his cousins. Were he not in protective sanctuary, he said he might have gone into hiding in some other state.
But now he is living in a church in Raleigh. ICE is aware of the situation; his position is public, announced by the church as a way to spread awareness of his case and others. The church youth group offered its room as a living quarters, which volunteers converted into an apartment.
“They’re great people. It’s nice to have them around the church and interact with them and have them here when we come by and come to visit and say hi,” high school student Erin Andrews said.
Trained sanctuary host volunteers from UPUCC as well as several other Christian and Jewish congregations take turns sitting by a side entrance to the church. Someone is always on duty, 24 hours a day, to be able to assist Jimenez as well as contact attorneys, immigrant rights groups, church staff, and the media, should someone such as an ICE agent shows up. So far, at UPUCC and other churches offering similar protective sanctuary, there have not been issues.
Some sanctuary seekers have gotten to go home within a few days, others after a couple of years. Sanders said it is a long commitment from the churches who host as well as the undocumented immigrants because there is a lot of uncertainty about how long these cases can last.
But the Thanksgiving meal had no fear of unexpected visitors. Jimenez had never met some of the guests until Thursday, while other’s he’s known for less than two months.
“It’s way different (than) last year. We had to spend Thanksgiving with my wife’s brother. This year I had to spend it here inside with different people, ones I didn’t even know., but when I got here I found out they are really nice people. They are really thankful in many ways.”
Before dessert, church members wrote on turkey-feather-shaped pieces of paper things for which they’re thankful, which were then attached to paper turkey bodies. Some wrote about sanctuary. Someone wrote the name Eliseo.
“I write down thank you for the people around us, thank you for the food, and thank you for the wonderful people who shared the meal with us,” Jimenez said. “It’s really enjoyable having people like them around us, around me, around my family, on this Thanksgiving.”