With her brow furrowed, Minerva Garcia nervously wrung her hands, watching her two young sons—Antonio and Mateo—chase each other around a tree in the parking lot of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Charlotte, North Carolina, field office on Thursday. Garcia was moments away from addressing the dozens of people who had arrived to lend their support to the mother of three, who has spent the better part of five months fighting to remain in the United States.
“My big hope is that I go in the door and come back out,” Garcia said tearfully to the crowd. “I don’t know what’s going to happen inside. I’m scared, but I’m hoping to come back out and celebrate my freedom again.”
One month after leaving sanctuary in a local church, Garcia feared she would be detained as part of ICE’s “silent raids” in which undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, with the approval of ICE, are now quietly being detained and deported during regularly scheduled immigration check-ins.
Meanwhile, as Garcia and others addressed the crowd, Black and brown immigrant families made their way inside the ICE field office, not knowing if they would be held in custody or allowed to leave. Viridiana Martinez, director of Alerta Migratoria, a Durham, North Carolina-based grassroots immigrant rights organization, happened to be at the field office supporting another person: Samuel Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented immigrant father who was detained at the border in 2014 while trying to reunite with his wife in United States as she was scheduled to have open heart surgery. Bruno received a stay of removal and in the years since, has been working to support his ill wife and a U.S.-citizen child.
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Much like Garcia, seemingly out of the blue, Bruno was contacted by ICE several weeks ago and instructed to leave the country by December 16. Also like Garcia, Bruno was told by ICE he had to provide proof he was taking steps to leave the country. On Thursday, he appeared in front of officials to show them the plane ticket he purchased for December 10.
“With Samuel, he’s the only source of income for his family and he pays for his wife’s treatment, so if he is not allowed to remain in the U.S., his wife will die. It will devastate this family,” Martinez said. “A lot of people might not see these cases as similar, but they are very similar. These are parents being attacked.”
Garcia migrated to the United States from Mexico with her two eldest sons after her husband died. Once here, one of her sons would die of cancer in 2007 and the other, Eduardo, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, would become blind due to complications from cancer. Over the last 18 years, Garcia has built a life in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, working, purchasing her own home, assisting Eduardo, and raising her two U.S.-citizen children, Antonio and Mateo. She has been on the radar of immigration officials since presenting herself at the border in 2000. For the past several years, Garcia has regularly checked in with ICE and at many of her check-ins, she was told she was not, and would not be, a priority for deportation. But then ICE agents told Garcia in May that she had to leave the country by June 28.
In the months since, Garcia’s life—and the lives of her children—have been completely out of their control. This once very private person has been forced to become a regular fixture on the local news, publicly fighting her case in hopes of raising her children. Organizers, activists, and faith leaders from across the Piedmont have rallied around Garcia, who took sanctuary in a Greensboro church with her two young sons in June. She remained in sanctuary for 96 days, leaving on October 3 after a federal judge in Texas ruled that Garcia’s removal order be vacated.
That was the end of that, or so she thought.
Thursday’s appointment at ICE’s Charlotte field office perplexed Garcia and her attorney, Helen Parsonage. Both were unsure why Garcia was being forced to appear. Both feared ICE would detain Garcia on the spot.
Julie Peeples, a reverend at Congregational United Church of Christ where Garcia took sanctuary, told Rewire that while she was at the field office to support Garcia, she also wanted to hold ICE accountable.
“Our tax dollars are being used to persecute single mothers, grandmothers, and fathers,” Peeples said, referring to Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a grandmother in sanctuary in Greensboro, and Eliseo Jimenez, a father in sanctuary in Raleigh. “This shouldn’t be happening. ICE is targeting families and Minerva is just one person whose name we know. What about the hundreds of other families this is happening to each day?”
During Thursday’s press conference, Peeples told the crowd that all people have the right to raise their children in safety and freedom, and that “keeping families together is an American value.”
What Peeples may have not known was that she was explicitly tying Garcia’s case to reproductive justice, a framework created by Black women based on international human rights principles. As part of the collective of organizations using that framework, Jessica González-Rojas and her organization, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), have worked for years to highlight how immigration is “absolutely” a reproductive justice issue, but that there is still a lot of education to do around the topic.
“Unfortunately, people tend to think of issues in a very siloed way, but we’ve been trying to make those connections clear and help people understand that different … identities impact a person’s ability to thrive in this country,” González-Rojas, the executive director of NLIRH, told Rewire.
To illustrate her point, González-Rojas cited the case of Jane Doe, the undocumented immigrant teen who, while in custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, was kept from accessing abortion care by the shelter where she was detained.
“Jane Doe illuminated how these intersections impact people very clearly, how her status as an undocumented teenager impacted her ability to access the heath care she needed in a failing immigration system. Jane Doe underwent so many obstacles and barriers, but those barriers and the treatment she received aren’t specific to her case. Undocumented immigrants all over the country are being denied the right to make decisions about their health, their families, and their futures and that is a reproductive justice issue at its core,” González-Rojas said.
There is no denying the great hypocrisy of the Trump administration. While federal immigration officials are attempting to force undocumented people to carry unwanted pregnancies because of a supposed interest in “fetal life and child birth,” the president himself has questioned whether birthright citizenship should continue. President Trump has also repeatedly referred to children like Garcia’s sons Antonio and Mateo as “anchor babies,” meaning U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants. The implication being that undocumented immigrants have children in the United States to avoid deportation. But how then are Garcia and thousands like her being targeted for deportation?
In the Bible Belt, where Jane Doe was detained and where Garcia calls home, states are also heavily militarized, González-Rojas said, and “more than happy” to use resources to intimidate mixed-status families.
“In the work we do on the border in the Rio Grande Valley, immigrant women, queer people, [and] femmes … are all living in a state of fear. People aren’t going to health-care appointments because Border Patrol is parked in front of the community health clinic. Taking your child to school is now an act of political courage,” González-Rojas told Rewire.
It’s also important to note that the realities facing mixed-status families aren’t specific to the Trump administration. To advocates, ICE has always been a “rogue agency” that hasn’t been held accountable—a federal immigration agency that has become synonymous with abuse and in-custody deaths.
“ICE isn’t becoming emboldened under Trump, it’s been emboldened. Our communities have faced these issues for years,” González-Rojas said. “Family separation and deportation have been hurting immigrant communities for decades. But our community is resilient. Our community endures this climate while organizing against it. They navigate fear while elevating their voices.”
Garcia did emerge from the Charlotte field office on Thursday. She held Antonio’s hand who in turn, grasped onto Mateo’s. They were a chain unbroken. The family was greeted by supporters who lined the walkway in anticipation of Garcia’s release, though never really sure if she would actually return. For the entirety of her almost hour-long meeting with immigration authorities, Garcia’s supporters walked circles around the parking lot, singing “We Shall Overcome,” or chanting, “Up, up with education, down, down with deportation!”
ICE is choosing to pursue Garcia further. Inside the Charlotte field office Thursday, they affixed the mother of three with an ankle shackle that will track her movements. Parsonage called this a wholly “unnecessary” development, given that Garcia has never tried to flee. “But anytime we go in those doors and come out again, it’s a victory,” Garcia’s attorney concluded.
Before Garcia entered the ICE field office on Thursday, she stood in front of her supporters, clasping her two small children. She did not react when a white man drove by the press conference and yelled, “You have to go back! Build the wall!” Garcia simply stared down at Antonio and Mateo.
Moments later, Peeples addressed the crowd, saying, “May we break open their hearts with compassion.”