It has been more than six months since Javier Flores García set foot outside the Arch Street United Methodist Church in downtown Philadelphia. Sometimes, as the other parishioners make their way through the big double doors after Sunday Mass, he lets himself walk with them all the way to the threshold.
“It’s very hard to watch people leave with their families when I know I have to go back down below, to the same place,” García told ABC News in Spanish.
Outside, tourists snap photos in front of City Hall, and commuters rush to work. In the six months he has been staying in the church’s basement, fall has turned to winter and winter to spring.
“Sometimes, when there is no one in the church and my wife comes to bring me food or to eat with me, I go up and open the door,” he said. “It gives me such nostalgia to see all the people walking outside when I know I can’t leave. That’s the hardest thing.”
But for García, a 40-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, the risk of walking outside is too great. It would take only a few minutes for agents from the nearby Philadelphia field office of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to arrive and arrest him — and eventually deport him. His ankle bracelet tells them where he is at all times. That’s why, since Nov. 13, he has been living in a makeshift apartment in the church. Places of worship are a category of locations deemed sensitive by ICE, meaning the agency typically avoids conducting enforcement actions in them.
In García’s small world, little has changed in six months. He spends his days doing odd jobs — painting, cleaning bathrooms and setting up tables for the free meals the congregation serves to homeless people and veterans. In his room, a small TV often flickers in the corner, on but muted. He has a desk with Christmas cards, a mini-fridge with food and in one corner, a narrow bed.
It’s in this room that he said he spends his days waiting for the outcome of his petition for legal status in the United States.
“Every day, it’s the same, wondering … when they’re going to decide to approve or deny it,” García said. “That is what I find myself thinking about — when, what day and how they will decide.”
The alternative is to go back to Mexico, a country he hasn’t called home in 20 years, without his three children, all U.S. citizens. García said he crossed the border on foot in 1997. He then met his wife, Alma Lopez, who is also undocumented, and together they have raised three children: Adamaris, 13; Javier, 5; and Yael, 2.
“I came here, but they started their lives here in this country….