A Raleigh church is sheltering an undocumented immigrant fighting deportation to Mexico, adding to the small but growing sanctuary movement in North Carolina.
Umstead Park United Church of Christ will serve as Eliseo Jimenez’s home while lawyers try again to reverse a deportation order that told Jimenez to leave the country by July 31.
“I can’t give up. I have to fight. My family needs me,” Jimenez said during a press conference at the church on Tuesday. “I believe that any loving, responsible father would do what I’m doing.”
Jimenez, 39, is married and has a son, 4, and daughter, 5. The family has been living in Greensboro, and Jimenez’s wife and children stay there during the week and visit Jimenez in Raleigh on weekends.
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Jimenez said he came to the U.S. on his own at age 17, leaving his parents in Mexico. Viridiana Martinez of Alerta Migratoria NC, serving as an interpreter for Jimenez, said he was one of many Hispanic residents who were picked up by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office in 2007, when the agency set up roadblocks in Latino neighborhoods.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson over the practice, calling it systematic racial profiling, but a federal judge ruled in the sheriff’s favor. The DOJ appealed and then dropped the suit in August 2016 in exchange for the department adopting a “bias-free” policing policy, revising its citizen complaint policy and making other small changes.
Jimenez was deported in 2007 because he was in the country illegally. He said Tuesday that he returned to the U.S. a month later, because he had two young children in the country at the time. Those children are now grown, but Jimenez has married and started a second family. All four children were born here, he said, and are U.S. citizens.
Jimenez said he fears returning to Mexico because drug cartels target people moving back from the U.S. Jimenez said he has a cousin who was kidnapped by a group that demanded money from the family.
Jimenez said he has supported himself and his family by working in construction, mostly laying floors. In 2013, he was stopped and charged with driving without a license, and says he was served with an order of removal, requiring him to leave the country. He later was granted a stay on the order, which he applied for again each year and was granted until this year, he said.
In July, the stay was denied and Jimenez was told he would have to leave the country by July 31.
Jimenez said he has been attending a Catholic church in Greensboro, and that he asked the church for help. Church officials agreed to make some phone calls on his behalf and offered some other aid, but did not offer him sanctuary, he said.
He moved in with a family in Greensboro where he hoped immigration officials would not find him while he explored legal appeals.
Meanwhile, the congregation at Umstead Park United Church of Christ learned Jimenez needed a safe place to stay – and one where those helping him would not be charged with harboring a fugitive.
Church member Gary Sanders said the congregation discussed the matter and took a vote, then offered to provide sanctuary to Jimenez. He moved in Monday night.
The church is at least the fourth in the state to offer sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant, said Jennie Belle, program director for farmworker and immigrant rights for the N.C. Council of Churches, based in Raleigh. Churches take in sanctuary seekers to draw attention to their plight and to give them time to get legal help to resolve their status.
“It is a big commitment, and you don’t know how long you’re taking it on for,” said Belle, who speaks to churches about the sanctuary movement and other ways congregations can help immigrants.
Sanders said Umstead Park UCC wanted to be sure it would have enough volunteers to have someone at the church at all times while Jimenez lives there, and to serve in other ways as needed. The church set up a registry online, Sanders said, and got three times as many volunteers as it needed.
Belle said that so far, immigration officials have not come to a church to arrest any sanctuary seekers in the state, though each church has said publicly it was housing undocumented residents.
Belle said that Wake is one of four counties in the state with agreements allowing local law enforcement to act as immigration agents, but she said she does not expect officers to act against Jimenez.
Jimenez said he plans to stay on the grounds of the church at all times, and hopes to use some of his construction skills to help pay back Umstead Park UCC for its hospitality. If lawyers are able to clear up his immigration issues, he said, he would like to remain in the state.
“I love North Carolina,” he said with a smile. “I don’t care if people say it’s a crazy place.”