Meagan Boudreau

Monday, Feb. 12, 2018

Undocumented immigrant and father of five seeking sanctuary at Phoenix church fears for his family

PHOENIX – Jesus Berrones, an undocumented father of five whose story has garnered international attention, is spending his days and nights in a room at a church in north Phoenix.

Berrones, 30, sought sanctuary at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ after federal authorities notified him they intend to deport him.

He spends his time in a large room divided by a barrier. On one side, there’s a pile of donated girls’ and boys’ clothes. On the other, there’s a twin bed and shelves.

“They need me so much because I’m the only one that works, gives them what they need,” Berrones, speaking of his children, said Monday. “I help to feed them, to take them to school, help them with their homework. When I have time, I go with my wife to take them to their appointments or anything.”

Jesus Berrones walks with his son, Jayden, toward the chapel where he is recieving refuge at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix. (Photo by Melina Zuniga/Cronkite News)

The Glendale resident made headlines after local news media outlets shed light on his situation: Berrones came to the U.S. from Mexico as a toddler. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told him to report for deportation on Monday.

His wife, Sonia Garcia, a U.S. citizen, is pregnant. The couple care for the five children, including a 5-year-old boy, Jayden, being treated for leukemia. Garcia said Jayden doesn’t want to leave his father’s side.

Yesenia Garcia on Monday said her sister, Sonia Garcia, was reading the online comments about her husband over the weekend. When she became distressed, the family decided to quit monitoring the news reports because they feared for Sonia Garcia’s health.

Berrones, an air-conditioner technician, took sanctuary at the church Feb. 9. He’s living there while his attorney works toward a resolution.

Shadow Rock United Church of Christ is one of the hundreds of congregations that make up the national Sanctuary Movement, offering “spaces of sanctuary” to those facing deportation, according to the movement’s website.

Sonia Garcia, who is five months pregnant, said she’s scared for her husband, Jesus Berrones, who is facing deportation. He has sought sanctuary at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix. They have been married for a month. (Photo by Melina Zuniga/Cronkite News)

The church will give Berrones and his family a safe place for as long as he and his family need it, said the Rev. Ken Heintzelman, senior minister.

“What we prefer to do is be an advocate and a companion with an attorney for a legal strategy for an administrative remedy,” he said.

The Sanctuary Movement began in 2007, following the Sensenbrenner Immigration Bill, which resulted in thousands of workplace raids in 2006.

In 2011, the movement worked for “prosecutorial discretion,” meaning ICE has the ability to grant deferred action depending on the case, according to a report by the Sanctuary Movement. Under President Barack Obama’s administration, “prosecutorial discretion” was granted by John Morton, the director of ICE at the time.

The Rev. Ken Heintzelman has helped six other immigrants seeking refuge, making the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix a sanctuary for people facing deportation. (Photo by Melina Zuniga/Cronkite News)

The Obama administration issued a “sensitive locations” memorandum, ensuring enforcement actions would not be taken at such places as hospitals, schools and places of worship.

In 2014, the first person entered sanctuary publicly and left 28 days later, with postponed deportation, according to a report by the Sanctuary Movement.

In January 2017, before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the number of
congregations signing up to become sanctuaries doubled from 400 to 800, according to the movement’s website.

As of January, more than 1,100 congregations have now become part of the movement.

Shadow Rock United Church of Christ began offering sanctuary in 2014 with Marco Tulio Coss. Coss and his attorney had asked people throughout the Valley for refuge, Heintzelman said.

Activists realized they could not house Coss without risking prosecution for harboring him.

“It was like a group of volunteers like, ‘I need someone to step forward,” and everybody stepped back – and we were left standing there,” Heintzelman said.

Shadow Rock United Church of Christ decided as a congregation to let Coss stay, thus becoming a known place of sanctuary.

“We weren’t (this) big, bold, white knight charging in,” Heintzelman said. “It was more of a matter of this human being showed up at our doorstep. God brought this story to us, and so how are we going to respond? And we’ve been trying to figure it out every day since.”

Yesenia Garcia passes time by playing Candy Crush with her nephew Jayden Berrones at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix. (Photo by Melina Zuniga/Cronkite News)

And so when Berrones asked for sanctuary, the church granted it.

“I don’t want to be deported to Mexico because I don’t have a life over there,” Berrones said. “Right now, I know there’s so much drama, killing, gangs, and I’m scared of that, too.”

Berrones, who said he has been deported twice before, hopes ICE will cancel his deportation and let him go home.

Every month, Sonia Garcia and Berrones take their son for chemo treatments at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Phoenix. Berrones holds his son so doctors can insert the IV.

“I don’t think it’s fair that the decision they made, deporting him, because he has a family over here he needs to be there for,” Sonia Garcia said Monday.

Heintzelman said the family visits and eats dinner together. The children have spent the night at the church, and they play outside on the church’s playground.

But Jayden spends the most time at the church, Sonia Garcia said. On Monday, he held his father’s hand as they strolled outside, and he played Candy Crush with his aunt while his parents spoke to the media.

Heintzelman said the church values inclusion and justice: “We’re talking about uprooting a whole family.”