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Amid Deportation Push, Suburban Church Grapples with Loss

Lots of people were at church the Sunday that immigration agents came and took Reynold Garcia.

“We came to the church early around 4 o’clock in the morning to do our prayers,” said Haggar Gutierrez, one of Garcia’s closest friends at the Christian Pentecostal Church in Schaumburg. That morning, the first one of the new year, she came to church prepared to console Garcia. Just a day before, immigration enforcement agents had gone to his house while he was away, and had taken his wife and two children.

“He told us, you know, if something happens -- I don’t know why he says it, but he says, ‘If something happens to me, we’ll keep in touch by cells,’” Gutierrez recalled. Nobody imagined what would unfold at the church later that morning. Some now refer to it as “The Happening.”

“He came up to me and was like ‘Brother, I need to talk to you,’” said Benjamin Murillo, another of Garcia’s church friends. “And I was like, ‘What is it?’ And he was like, ‘Well, I received a message from Noel. He said that he hit somebody with the car.’”

Noel Coria, the cousin of Garcia’s wife, had been texting back and forth with Garcia all morning. Coria’s texts urged Garcia to leave the church, because Coria said he’d been in a car accident. Garcia told Murillo that he was worried about his cousin -- but that something about the story also didn’t seem right.

Then, Garcia got a phone call. An officer confirmed that Coria had been in an accident. He told Garcia to sit tight at the church, and they would pick him up to take him to the Palatine Police Station. The officer said that Garcia would need to fill out some paperwork since he was part-owner of Coria’s car.

“So we went outside, looking for them,” Gutierrez said. “And suddenly we saw that man standing right on the corner. They asked him -- the officer, you know, he asked him, ‘Are you Reynold Garcia?’ And he goes, ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh, can we talk to you?’”

The officers came in unmarked cars, and wore vests that said “Police.” But as Garcia, Gutierrez and Murillo spoke with them, unease crept in.

“Like, you know what? I don’t think this is just the regular police,” said Murillo. “That’s when I told them, ‘Can I go with him?’ ‘Nope. Unfortunately, we can’t take you with us.’”

“The very last moment, you know, is when we realized what was happening,” Gutierrez recalled. “I go, ‘No, no no… this is not police. This is ICE.’ But it was too late, because he was already inside the car.”

ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Garcia confirmed it in a text message to Gutierrez hours later. By the next morning, he was already in Texas, at the same detention center as his wife and kids

“He was a really good friend and we started loving him like part of the family,” said Murillo. But even though Reynold had been a devoted member of the church for a year, his friends did not know that he had actually been deported once before. This, according to ICE, was the reason he was a priority for removal -- even though he is not Central American.

Gerson Moreno is associate pastor of Christian Pentecostal Church. He says people there are spooked, mostly because of how immigration enforcement agents took Garcia. In particular, because he was taken while he was attending church -- a place traditionally thought of as a sanctuary. Technically, ICE agents never set foot on church property, but they came within feet of it, meeting Garcia in the McDonalds parking lot next door.

Even more shocking was their tactic to persuade Garcia to leave the church. Coria said the text messages about the car accident earlier that morning weren’t sent by him at all -- they were sent by ICE agents who had stopped Coria en route to church services. The officers, said Coria, used his phone and texted Garcia about a fictional car accident to trick him into meeting with them.

“In my opinion, it’s actually being quite creative,” said Jeffrey Wolstenholme, a retired ICE supervisor. ICE wouldn’t comment on their tactics in this case, but Wolstenholme said the ruse used to catch Garcia is common in law enforcement.

“I mean, if you call someone and say, ‘Hey, will you come over here to the house? I want to arrest you,’ what are the chances he’s going to show up?” Wolstenholme explained.

Wolstenholme said agents’ first priority is to execute removal warrants in as safe a manner as possible. He said he thinks ICE agents behaved legally AND ethically in this case.

But the episode has left people at Christian Pentecostal Church thinking about what they need to do to protect their friends in the congregation.

“We don’t want this to happen again,” said Gutierrez. “All of us, you know, we love this family.”

Moreno said church members have fundamentally changed their day-to-day habits as a result of Garcia and his family’s experience.

“There’s people that are going out less,” he said. “They’re avoiding certain areas. If they have to go to work, they’re taking different routes to go back home.”

Moreno said Garcia’s arrest, nearly on the steps of the church, has forced the congregation to wake up and take action. He said they don’t oppose the government or the application of the law, but he said people need to know that they have rights. He and church leaders are now taking steps to help members of the congregation learn about their rights and assert them.

At the end of services on a recent Sunday, Moreno announced that the church would soon hold a “know your rights” seminar, so undocumented members know what to do if ICE shows up. The church is also installing security cameras outside the building to monitor who comes by.

“We’re also letting members know that if anyone is calling you or asking you to leave the church, that you need to notify somebody,” said Moreno.

In the meantime, some church members have gone back to Garcia’s apartment to pack things up. The congregation is fundraising to mail the boxes to Mexico. People in the church continue to communicate with the family. They say the Garcias are doing well and are happy to be with relatives. But they miss their church.

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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