New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Francis X. Clines
August 04, 2017
NEW HAVEN — Across two decades as an immigration lawyer practicing the quieter arts of saving clients from federal deportation, Glenn Formica never thought highly of the tactic of seeking refuge in a church, where law enforcement is hesitant to intrude. He was skeptical of the sanctuary approach, and the ephemeral hopes he thought it generated in trying to shield undocumented immigrants in dramatic standoffs with authorities.
“What? Blowing raspberries at ICE?” Mr. Formica said, explaining that he preferred his proven method of privately negotiating with the agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to build halfway effective relationships. Working the bureaucratic ropes, he secured repeated reprieves for unthreatening clients he served pro bono like Nury Chavarria. He rates the undocumented 43-year-old as trustworthy as any salt-of-the-earth American, but she came here illegally 24 years ago from Guatemala.
Ms. Chavarria has since raised four children as a single mother — a shadowy noncriminal noncitizen who pays taxes and cleans houses for a living. She received serial notices of deportation over the years, but Mr. Formica always secured reprieves from considerate ICE officers previously allowed to stamp her case “Not an enforcement priority.”
But then Ms. Chavarria sensed a new and terrifying urgency last month in a deportation notice from the Trump administration. She shocked her lawyer by darting into the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal here in search of sanctuary. She doubted Mr. Formica could prevail this time against President Trump’s nonstop rants about evil immigrants and his order broadening the power of ICE agents to focus on even stable, crime-free strivers like Ms. Chavarria for deportation.
Her cry for church sanctuary from government pursuit, a historical protection going back to medieval times, prompted instant headlines. TV crews surrounded the church on her July 20 deportation deadline; the state and city’s political hierarchy gathered inside to support Ms. Chavarria as she clung to her marginal place in America.
“I was furious,” Mr. Formica said of the sanctuary display. “I stormed into the church, profane and boorish, worrying how I’d ever get my client out of there past what I thought were crazy radicals.”
But then he slowed down, surveyed the scene and had to rethink the meaning of sanctuary. “It was Birkenstock grandmas, local church leaders, the governor and congressional delegation,” he said. And impassioned citizens, including a jaded Trump supporter who said he had come because he was friends with undocumented immigrants in the restaurant business.
Mr. Formica warily approached one community organizer, Kica Matos, a local firebrand in life’s various causes all the way to death row appeals. “For me, it was like meeting an extraterrestrial,” said the buttoned-down lawyer. “But then,” he conceded, “I found she knew what she was doing.”
“I did a 180 on sanctuary right there,” Mr. Formica said. “I never thought in 20 years I’d ever see such an outpouring of support for one of my clients.” He thinks he overlooked early warnings when ICE agents he knew and trusted never dared return his phone calls as Ms. Chavarria’s deportation date approached.
His brush with sanctuary convinced him that a new regime is enforcing the Trump doctrine with a vengeance. “It’s ICE unchained, a rabid dog now, no limit in sight,” the lawyer summarized, sounding more sad than radicalized.
Powered by the church rally, Mr. Formica and others raced around to have Ms. Chavarria spared immediate deportation through an emergency stay from immigration court. She has left the church while her case is argued, but she is considered an “ICE fugitive” by the government, a higher-priority category for eventual deportation. Mr. Formica knows he must fight for her further and harder than ever. He tapped New Haven’s history as a sanctuary city by calling his friend Mike Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School. He pleaded for a corps of sharp students for fast help in drafting what will be a complicated legal case.
“In four days, they turned around what I needed,” Mr. Formica said, back from the iglesia and sounding more secure in his own sanctuary, the law. “I had thought this would be another happy ending,” he said, facing a larger court fight. “Little did I know.”
A version of this editorial appears in print on August 5, 2017, on Page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: No Sanctuary for the Immigration Lawyer.
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