John Lentz, pastor of Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, paused to address the crowd of supporters.
About 35 people had gathered in the parking lot of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Brooklyn Heights. They hoped this might be the day Leonor Garcia, who has been living in Forest Hill for about two months seeking sanctuary from a voluntary deportation order, might be granted a stay of removal.
Lentz told the supporters that an application for visa was pending for the Akron mother of four, who came to this country illegally as a 15-year-old. With a receipt for the visa application in hand, he was going to march into the office and submit an additional application for a stay of removal. Garcia might get to go home.
In October, I spent three days at the church with Garcia as she cooked, cleaned and looked after her children, who are only able to visit on weekends. Her story, “Leonor’s Choice,” appears in Cleveland Magazine’s December issue.
On Monday, I followed Lentz and two others into the Brooklyn Heights ICE office. We went to the drab, gray room where, in August, Garcia was told she had two weeks to buy her own plane ticket out of the country.
A few women sat patiently in the smattering of chairs, several with young children, waiting for their cases to be called. A Department of Homeland Security seal hung on one wall.
Lentz approached the window and slid Garcia’s paperwork to a secretary.
Minutes later, an ICE agent arrived to speak with Lentz. Garcia must submit the application in person, he said.
Lentz said he believed that was incorrect. He knew of other people’s applications that had been submitted without them being present, he said.
“If we bring her in, do I have assurance that you would not detain her?” Lentz asked.
“No, I can’t give you that assurance,” the agent said. There are rules to follow, he continued. “We’re not accepting the stay [application] without her in our custody.”
The preacher’s voice gathered in anger. “How can you go home and have a good Thanksgiving, when you’re doing this to Leonor?”
The agent, who looked shocked by the outburst, walked away.
Lentz snapped up the papers and his coat.
Their conversation lasted less than five minutes. The entire appointment was done in less than 10.
“If we bring her, they’ll deport her,” Lentz told me a few minutes later. “If we don’t bring her, they won’t accept the application.”
Outside, activists and church volunteers knotted around Lentz, waving signs: “Don’t separate families,” “We are all descendants of immigrants” and “Free Leonor.”
“Today, my friends, I am horrified, disappointed and heartbroken,” Lentz said to the crowd. “But we shall continue. We shall overcome.”
He is not sure yet what the next step will be toward getting Garcia home. But the church is ready to sustain her for the long haul, he said.
“I really do believe that this was retribution for our giving her sanctuary, frankly,” Lentz said to me as he was leaving to break the bad news to Garcia. “This is power saying, You want to play ball?”