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Undocumented immigrant fight finds symbols in unexpected places: Westwood

Jose Torres, who was supposed to meet with ICE officials on Wednesday, claimed sanctuary in a New Orleans church.

Jose Torres with his two daughters at his home in New Orleans.

Rosemary Westwood/For Metro

Jose Torres with his two daughters at his home in New Orleans.

Jose Torres is not an imposing man. At 32, he’s muscled from years in construction work, yet short, perhaps only 5’5”, with large brown eyes and a clipped beard. He appears shy, diminutive, not the kind you’d expect to take on the U.S. federal government.

But President Donald Trump’s American has put many people in unlikely places — in this case, made Torres a symbol of the undocumented immigrant’s fight.

“My daughters are my life,” Torres told me on Wednesday. “I’m fighting to stay here, side by side with my family.”

Moments before, on the stone steps of the First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans surrounded by heads of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, TV crews, supporters and his wife, Torres — a leader of a local immigrant worker’s rights group — announced he was taking sanctuary inside the church, for his family and “on behalf of millions of undocumented families.”

Wednesday marked 30 days until Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials planned to deport Torres, who came to America at the age of 18 and said he was soon trafficked into farm work, his immigration papers stolen. Torres was supposed to meet ICE officers that day, along with his passport and plane ticket to the country he was born, El Salvador. Instead, he moved into the church.

A handful of other U.S. immigrants have recently done the same in Massachusetts, Colorado and New Mexico amid a skyrocketing rate of arrests and deportations. In the first six months of 2017, deportations across five southern states including Louisiana hit 6,665, up from only 1,387 in 2016, according the New Orleans ICE division.

The church’s pastor, Shawn Moses Anglim, said he hopes more faith centres offer sanctuary, too. “So much of what’s going on is a silent brutality,” he told me. “I’m not going to bed worried about someone knocking on my door. But our neighbours are, and people need to stand up and say, ‘This is my neighbour.’”

Torres’ two daughters, 8 and 2, both born in New Orleans, zipped around the church’s pews, giggling. A TV camera swooped in for a close up, and the eldest smiled, holding onto her sister, as if aware she needs those viewing the footage to like her.

Torres moved here 14 years ago, one of the wave of undocumented immigrants who rebuilt the city after Hurricane Katrina. All he wants, he said, is to stand before an immigration judge and plead his case for a visa — a chance he’s not yet had.

“We’re not a plague, we are human beings,” he told me. “We just want to live here in dignity and see our families thrive.”

As for how long he’ll live inside the church, and to what end: “Only God knows the day he’ll open the door for me,” Torres said.  

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