New Haven Pastor Recounts Decision To Grant Immigration Fugitive Norwalk Mother Sanctuary

On a recent afternoon, Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal – teeming a few weeks earlier with TV crews straining for a glimpse of Nury Chavarria, a Norwalk woman who had sought sanctuary in the church – was blissfully quiet.

"I heard that this was a refuge for the fishermen on the Quinnipiac River," pastor Hector Otero said, sitting in the 146-year-old church's sanctuary, whose ribbed ceiling arched overhead like the upturned hull of a ship.

"I'm trying to stay close to that history."

The decision to offer Chavarria sanctuary was not one he took lightly. Seven months ago, when President Donald Trump took office, Otero sat down with immigration lawyers, activists and other religious leaders to craft a protocol for giving sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. He was alarmed by campaign trail promises to step up deportations, he said, and wanted to offer his church as a refuge to immigrants defying removal orders – provided they could make a strong case for residency.

"We needed to develop a criteria for who we [were] going to help and who would not receive our help," he said. "We want to be realistic. I am a man of faith, but sometimes you need to have common sense."

His church is not an indiscriminate safehouse for anyone fleeing federal agents, he explained. Before offering Chavarria sanctuary, Otero took stock of her background and weighed her chances of being granted a stay with lawyers and the church's board.

"We want to make sure the person we receive in our church has a good chance to stay in the United States," he said. "In this case, Nury...had been in the United States for the last 24 years; she worked from 1993; she filed her taxes. She worked hard to raise her family. We thought we needed to be involved in this case."

Had someone with a criminal record requested sanctuary, he would have had to make a more difficult decision, he said.

"I don't know how I would manage that situation," he said. "Not everybody deserves a second chance, but some people, they deserve it."

In Chavarria's case, Otero saw that the 43-year-old mother of four had lived in the country for years, had no history of arrests, and was the sole provider for her children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. He believed she had a fighting chance, and the following day welcomed her into his church.

Privately, he was consumed with fear, he said. Could he be arrested? Would his church be raided? Had he implicated his congregation in helping Chavarria?

"My daughter asked, 'Dad — is it possible you could be under arrest?'" he recalled. "And I said, 'I don't know. But I think we are doing the right thing.'"

At the advice of James Bhandary-Alexander, a New Haven attorney who counseled Otero throughout Chavarria's six-day sanctuary, he announced — as loudly as possible — that he was harboring a fugitive.

He mailed letters to ICE and the FBI, held a press conference and alerted the media.

"That's a really foolproof way to prevent liability because you're not preventing law enforcement from finding someone," Bhandary-Alexander explained. "The way to get into trouble is to be secretive and try to hide what you're doing."

Cases like Chavarria's have exposed a legal gray area that allows religious leaders to shelter immigration fugitives without technically breaking the law, he said. Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are advised against entering "sensitive locations" like schools, hospitals and houses of worship only by internal policy.

If agents know full well that an immigration fugitive is inside a church, the only thing stopping them from making an arrest is their own discretion, he said.

"If they have a warrant, they can go anywhere — even into a church. [The policy] doesn't technically prevent ICE from going in."

But if pastors like Otero frame offering sanctuary as an act of faith, shattering that sanctuary could be interpreted as violating First Amendment rights to religious expression, he said.

"The government recognizes that people acting on faith occasionally do things that are questionable under the law," he said. "Most congregations express a humanitarian basis of faith in offering sanctuary, and the government realizes that some consideration should be given for that."

Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman, deferred to a 2011 memo from ICE director John Morton that codified the "sensitive location" policy. Out of concern for public safety, agents are encouraged to make arrests in controlled environments like jails and courthouses, where suspects have been screened for weapons.

For Otero, the knowledge that only an internal policy of self-restraint kept ICE agents from entering his church made for a tense six days.

"If ICE comes, I said I would not stop them. They are the law," he said.

When Otero came to Connecticut in 2009, people treated him like an immigrant, a foreigner, he said – despite the fact that, as a Puerto Rican, he was an American citizen.

"People think all Hispanic people are immigrants," he said.

Otero, a pastor of 20 years, grew up in the town of Luquillo, in the shadow of the El Yunque mountain on Puerto Rico's northeast shore.

When he moved to New Haven to assume the pastor role at Iglesia de Dios, he knew no English, had no family or friends, and ached for home, he said. In Chavarria's case, he understood her inner conflict – of missing your homeland but loving your adopted one, despite the hostilities you might face for being there.

"I felt how she felt, because we belong to another place," he said. "Sometimes the pain brings you together with other people because you understand their pain."

He converted the church's nursery into living quarters for Chavarria and her 9-year-old daughter, and organized a schedule for parishioners to bring the two meals.

Privately, he was conflicted about putting his church and 350-person congregation in legal jeopardy by harboring her. Chavarria was a fugitive in the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement after failing to comply with an order to return to her native Guatemala.

"I am a man of God, but I am a man of law and order," he said. "I want to make sure I fulfill my mission as a pastor to serve the people…[but] I don't want to make obstacles to you fulfilling your mission as a government."

Otero was prepared for a months-long holdout. But after six days, an immigration judge granted Chavarria an emergency stay and ordered her case re-opened.

"Everybody was crying," he said.

Weeks after the media circus had picked up and moved to another New Haven church where Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez, a Meriden father and native of Ecuador, is now taking sanctuary, Otero recalled in a moment of quiet.

The morning after Chavarria arrived, he saw her praying at the altar. He thought of her children, wondering what would happen to their mother.

"I think I convinced myself that I didn't do anything against the law," he said. "You fight to keep a family together. That is my work."

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