tupungato/iStock/Thinkstock(PHILADELPHIA) — 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. It’s theirs, and they have to continue here,” he said. “It’s hard, but I think it’s worth it to keep fighting. Not for me but for
my children. It’s not fair to them to have their well-being taken away.”
But this is his last chance to legally stay with his family, according to his attorney, Brennan Gian-Grasso, 39. Authorities have deported García four times — in 2007, in 2013 and twice in 2014 —
Gian-Grasso said. Each time, García has managed to cross back into the U.S. on foot.
Now Garcia is waiting to hear whether he will be granted one of only 10,000 visas that are reserved each year for immigrants who are victims of crimes and agree to help law enforcement solve them.
Nearly two years after his U visa petition was filed, he has no choice but to continue to wait.
“This is really his only option right now,” Gian-Grasso told ABC News. “This is his shot.”
Vying for 1 of 10,000 visas
García’s fate hangs entirely on a visa dependent on one of the worst days of his life. On March 18, 2004, he and his brother were attacked and stabbed with box cutters in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, by
two other undocumented men.
According to an affidavit of probable cause filed by the detectives in the case, the brothers were transported to the hospital after “suffering stab wounds and numerous lacerations” from “grayish
colored box cutters.” The two men who attacked them were charged with aggravated assault.
“While he was in the hospital, Javier worked with police to let them know all the details he could,” Gian-Grasso said. “He was willing to testify, but because of his cooperation from the very get-
go and his ability to identify the people who hurt him, they ended up accepting plea deals to aggravated assault, served jail time and were ultimately deported.”
U nonimmigrant visas, created in 2000, are reserved for victims of crimes who have suffered physical and mental abuse and are willing to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation or
prosecution of those responsible, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. U visa holders may eventually petition for permanent residency and help their family members stay in the
U.S. as well.
The number of U visas granted hovers around 10,000 each year, according to USCIS. But the number of U visa petitions nearly tripled from 2010 to 2015, from 10,742 to 30,106, according to USCIS.
Susan Bowyer is the deputy director of the Immigration Center for Women and Children in Oakland, California. She said the center helps file about 1,000 principal U visa petitions each year.
“Law enforcement agencies consistently tell us that the U visa is a great way to build — or repair — bridges to immigrant communities,” she told ABC News in an email.
The increase in petitions can be attributed to increased awareness among immigration attorneys and their clients, she said.
“People learn about it from other people that got U visas. We had a client come in who was robbed on a street corner, and a woman leaned out the window above him and said, ‘Call the police. You can
get a U visa,’” Bowyer added.
But that wasn’t the case for García, Gian-Grasso said. No U visa petition was filed on his behalf until more than …read more
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