Schaumburg church at center of deportation controversy

After federal agents arrested his wife and two children, Reynold Garcia sought solace at the one place he felt safe: the Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg.

The close-knit members of the Hispanic church gathered together and prayed for guidance. Suddenly, Garcia's phone rang. Your friend was in an accident with your car - you need to come with us, a police officer said.

Garcia left the church and never returned.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers concocted the accident tale Jan. 3 in order to apprehend him. Two days later, the Palatine family was deported back to Mexico.

That's not the end of the story for the congregation, which is outraged and edgy.

"We don't want them to use this place as a trap to catch people," Senior Pastor Carmelo Moreno said.

Garcia said his wife and children were in the U.S. legally, but he admits he was not.

ICE officials say the entire family was in the country unlawfully and they follow priorities set by the federal government in deciding whom to deport.

"If you come here illegally, we will send you back, consistent with our laws and values," U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said of nationwide raids in early January.

Questions about immigration are roiling the country as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge to a presidential order allowing people without legal status to apply to stay in the U.S. and obtain work permits if their children are citizens or legal permanent residents. The Department of Homeland Security estimates 11.4 million immigrants are in the U.S. without authorization and 540,000 live in Illinois, about one in 24 of the state's residents.

The issue is inflaming the presidential debate, with Republican Donald Trump advocating a wall across the southern border while Democrat Hillary Clinton favors a "pathway to citizenship."

Regardless of the family's legal status, "they still have rights," Christian Pentecostal Center Pastor Gerson Moreno said.

The church is a sanctuary, Moreno said.

"It's not even respectful. This is a church. ... They come and lie to take a person out of the building."

Different rules for churches

Concerned about "deceptive tactics," federal lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth asked the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general on April 22 to investigate whether ICE broke its own rules.

Regarding sanctuaries, Johnson said in 2014 that "when enforcing the immigration laws, our personnel will not, except in emergency circumstances, apprehend an individual at a place of worship, a school, a hospital or doctor's office or other sensitive location."

Asked if ICE acted ethically, "we cannot discuss details of law enforcement actions, including the tactics our officers employ, in order to preserve officer safety," spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said.

The idea "of sanctuary goes back to pre-biblical times," said the Rev. Craig B. Mousin, an attorney who lectures on asylum and refugee rights at DePaul University in Chicago.

Using a lie to lure someone from a place of worship "raises some very serious issues," added Mousin, university ombudsperson.

David Iglesias, director of the Wheaton College Center for Faith, Politics and Economics and former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, has a different reaction.

Iglesias recalled authorizing his investigators to track down drug dealers by tricking them into thinking they had won a jackpot. Using tactics like that and, similarly, deceiving Garcia "is permissible," said Iglesias, who has prosecuted many immigration cases. "Kicking in the door of a church when there is a service going on - that's a problem," he said.

  Karen Margarito-Pineda, who was deported along with her husband and children, talks via Skype with Gerson Moreno, pastor of Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg. Mark Black/

Garcia and his wife, Karen Margarito-Pineda, crossed into San Ysidro, California, in November 2014 and told U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents they were requesting asylum. The couple say they were fleeing organized crime in the state of Guerrero, a region the U.S. calls the most violent in Mexico.

Federal officials separated the family. Margarito-Pineda, the couple's son, 11, and daughter, 4, were questioned and allowed to remain while her asylum request was considered. Garcia was deported but re-entered illegally to rejoin them. "It's my family," he said.

In November 2015, Margarito-Pineda's application was denied. ICE officers apprehended her and the children Jan. 2 in their Palatine apartment, then flew them to a Texas detention center that evening.

Garcia, who wasn't home at the time, learned what happened from a friend. He arrived at the church before dawn and prayed with parishioners who promised "we'll look for a way to help," Garcia recalled from Mexico in a Skype interview.

A text from a friend

  The Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg. Bob Chwedyk/

Unexpectedly, a text message arrived, purportedly from the family's roommate Noel Coria Lopez, saying there'd been a car accident.

The claim was false, Lopez said later. ICE agents had detained him and used his phone to text Garcia, he said.

Next, Garcia received a phone call from Lopez's number. On the line was a so-called police officer asking Garcia to come and deal with insurance questions because his name was on the car's title.

Authorities arrived in two dark SUVs and parked in the McDonald's parking lot adjacent to the church. Garcia asked two church members to advise him.

Hagar Gutierrez of Palatine says she feels betrayed after officers told her, "Don't worry about your friend. He'll come back in 15 to 20 minutes."

"You're not supposed to lie. Aren't you supposed to tell the truth?" she asked. "I don't trust them anymore."

Parishioner Benjamin Murillo is second-guessing his advice to Garcia to go with the police. "They never identified themselves. I feel so bad. It's like we handed him to them. I would do anything to have him back here."

Garcia was driven to the Moretti's restaurant parking lot and arrested. He was flown to Texas and reunited with his family.

Duckworth, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, along with U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago and Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, asked the Department of Homeland Security inspector general to review whether ICE agents identified themselves and whether they received permission from Schaumburg police to impersonate them, which the lawmakers said is required by regulations. Schaumburg police said they were not aware of any ICE activities Jan. 3.

"We are also concerned the ICE agents violated its internal policy on sensitive locations by conducting such a targeted enforcement action at a church," the legislators wrote Inspector General John Roth.

ICE's missions are of "utmost importance in keeping our nation safe, but it must be balanced with integrity and caution," the lawmakers said.

A spokesman for Roth said the inspector general's office was "considering the request as part of our audit planning process."

'A lot of leeway'

"Immigration agents should not target sensitive locations like churches and schools," a spokeswoman for Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield said. Republicans U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Highland Park and U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton declined to comment on the case.

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Plano Republican, has pushed to ease immigration for religious minorities persecuted by the Islamic State. "Congressman Hultgren supports legitimate asylum seekers going through the proper legal channels, and will respect the legal process," a spokesman said.

There is a long tradition of law enforcement staying out of churches, and "that's why they got him out," said David Iglesias, director of the Wheaton College Center for Faith, Politics and Economics and former U.S. attorney for New Mexico. courtesy of Wheaton College

Wheaton College's Iglesias believes a judge would uphold the tactics. "Courts give a lot of leeway to law enforcement in terms of ruses," he said. "Sanctuary is not a carte blanche. You're not giving people the ability to immunize themselves from federal immigration law."

There is a long tradition of law enforcement staying out of churches, and "that's why they got him out," Iglesias said. "That's why they used the ruse. They are permitted to use ruses to let people come to them."

The action has galvanized regional religious groups. Using the church denigrates its value as a sacred space and will cause parishioners to avoid police and curtail activities out of fear, members of the Chicago Religious Leadership Network said.

Luring someone from a safe space has a "ripple effect," immigration organizer Lissette Castillo said. "People will be afraid to go to church and school, and they stop going to church and school."

  Reynold Garcia thought he was safe at Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg, but federal immigration agents lured him out of the church and then arrested him. Mark Black/

The group, which includes suburban and Chicago congregations, is pushing for a review of the Chicago ICE office and has enlisted legal aid to reopen the asylum case.

Immigration attorney Mony Ruiz-Velasco said an error by the family's previous attorney could be grounds for reconsideration.

She also is exploring whether ICE's actions toward Garcia constitute entrapment.

But "I think it is always much harder to bring someone back after being deported than to fight those cases while still in the U.S.," Ruiz-Velasco noted.

Garcia said he's heartened by the grass-roots support although disillusioned by what happened.

"They used deception to arrest me," Garcia said. "Never did I think that would happen from the authorities in the United States. I thought it was different here."

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