Cleveland Heights church will allow woman facing deportation to seek sanctuary from the law

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS - A church in Cleveland Heights announced plans on Tuesday to protect undocumented immigrants.

Forest Hill Presbyterian Church officials say they'll allow an undocumented woman who is facing deportation, Leonor Garcia, and her family to live in the church. This is the first church to publicly announce a sanctuary state in Cuyahoga County.

"I wanna stay here for my family. I wanna fight it. Because I want to be with my family," Garcia said in front of a crowd on the church steps. 

"I never go to Mexico. Because I don't got nothing in Mexico," she added, saying it all started years ago.

"2011 I got this problem. It's hard for my kids," Garcia said. 

She didn't elaborate and wouldn't do a one on one interview.

Forest Hill Presbyterian's pastor, John Lentz, spoke out on her behalf and the church's decision to provide what they call a sanctuary for her and her family.

"Leonor came to America from Mexico as a young teenager to escape poverty and violence...while the concern of law enforcement breaking in is in the back of my mind, I hope the issue of equity and fairness and justice is at the back of minds of our law enforcement," he said. 

So far, the church is providing a sanctuary for just her.

"We'll see what the need is," he said.

News 5 asked Pastor Lenz if he's concerned about safety and security of the church now that they've made this very public. 

"It is a concern, but I think we have to make a statement and a stand so people of goodwill can extend this stand."

A Cleveland Heights City Councilman, Micheal N. Ungar, expressed his support. 

"I'm going to ask our city manager and our police chief to make sure special care to policing this immediate area," he said. 

"Is there concern with providing that special care when the basis of this isn't legal?" News 5 asked.

"I'm not sure I follow," Ungar said.

"There's no legal protection here."

"That's true," Ungar replied. "What I'm really saying here is that there are those who don't agree with what was done here and they don't agree in a very passionate way," Councilman Ungar explained.

"Are there concerns that doing this lead the church to losing its tax free status?" News 5 asked.

"No," he answered. 

So what is the legality of this - can a church provide sanctuary from the law?

We asked nationally recognized immigration attorney and activist Margaret Wong if a church can legally protect people from deportation orders.

"Good question, that depends on definition on sanctuary city and church...Immigration has not been storming churches to deport people, but if they do? Fun case for state of Ohio. To see what the state of Ohio would do. What the church would do," she explained. 

ICE policies do say agents will avoid enforcement activity in quote "sensitive areas."

ICE spokesman, Khaalid Walls, sent the following statement: 

"Current ICE policy directs agency personnel to avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances. The locations specified in the guidance include schools, places of worship, and hospitals."

"This is one of the first churches in Ohio, if not the first, to actually announce this," Attorney Margaret Wong said. 

She says there really is no legal precedent. 

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