Jose Torres said he could finally breathe easy when he told reporters Tuesday how relieved he was to be able to walk freely in New Orleans without fear of being arrested. Torres is an El Salvadoran immigrant who came to New Orleans in 2005 and supported his wife and two, American-born daughters by working in the construction industry. He's got a Social Security card and he pays taxes, but he's not an American citizen.
Last fall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials (ICE) notified Torres that he would have to leave the country or be deported. Instead, he entered First Grace United Methodist Church on Canal Street on November 15th - and never left the church property until this week.
Federal policy discourages ICE from making arrests in "sensitive" areas like churches, and First Grace is one of fewer than 20 churches in the nation that have given "sanctuary" to immigrants fearing deportation. The First Grace congregation welcomed Torres into the relative safety of the church and he knew he might have to stay there indefinitely.
But this week, ICE notified Torres that he was free to leave the church and would not face arrest, as long as he "checked in" with the regional office of ICE once a month. Torres and the church congregation were elated. Pastor Shawn Anglim called the ICE decision "stunning." The church held a small party for Torres on Monday night, and he enjoyed walking outside the church property for the first time on Tuesday. However, an ICE response to a request for comment suggests that Torres' sense of freedom is premature, and possibly mistaken.
In an email, Bryan Cox, Southern Region Communications Director for ICE, wrote that Torres “was given one month; it would be entirely speculative for any person to suggest what may happen beyond that time frame.”
Cox wrote that the decision to allow Torres to leave the church sanctuary without facing immediate arrest simply gives Torres “a month to seek any potential immigration relief that he may want to attempt to obtain. His case will be re-evaluated in a month based on the totality of the circumstances, just as is done in all cases.”
When asked about Cox's email, Loyola Law Professor Bill Quigley (who's also the attorney for First Grace) responded that "there are no guarantees for (Torres) or thousands of others who have monthly ICE check-ins." Still, Quigley said that he's certain that the First Grace congregation and others in the community "will continue to accompany (Torres) and support him and many, many others until our nation acts justly to our sisters and brothers."
Although Torres is now free to live away from the church, he says that without an income for seven months he's lost his home. He and his family will have to stay in the church until they can afford a home of their own.