There are scores of religious sanctuaries in New Orleans. First Grace United Methodist Church, located in Mid-City, has one thing on all the others, though. It’s a real-life sanctuary to a man named Jose Torres.
Jose is a community leader with the Congress of Day Laborers (Congreso de Jornaleros), a group of immigrant workers and families who helped to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. In November of 2017, Jose became the first New Orleanian to take sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation.
I met Jose shortly after he moved into First Grace, and we sat around a table in one of the church’s classrooms. Jose’s English is very good, but his Spanish is poetic. So Rachel Taber translated for me. As Jose began to tell his story, his eyes softened, and I could tell that this is a story many years in the making.
Jose was eighteen years old when he arrived in the US. He emigrated to escape the violence that continues to ravage his home country. Faced with the constant threat of human trafficking and homicide, Jose made a choice. “You could die in an instant, so I decided that I was going to survive.”
The first memory that comes to Jose’s mind when he thinks back on that journey is reaching the Rio Grande. Spanning 1,900 miles, the Rio Grande has become synonymous with what may be America’s most contested geographic construct -- the US-Mexico border. “This river is a barrier. It’s a barrier between two worlds. I can remember when I crossed that river, seeing so many shoes and clothes strewn about, and knowing that each one was one person’s dream, and not knowing whether they made it here or not,” he says.
Though that memory remains vivid, much has changed for Jose since he became a New Orleanian. He has a family now -- two daughters, both of whom have serious health issues. His youngest daughter is two years old and was born prematurely, which has led to a complicated seizure condition. As Jose explains, “The authorities are aware that she has this life-threatening medical condition, but it doesn’t matter to them. Well, maybe it doesn’t matter to them, but it matters to me. Because I’m her dad, this is my daughter, these are my girls, this is my life.”
It’s obvious to anyone who speaks to Jose for five minutes that his daughters are his motivating force. “Knowing that you have these beautiful little girls waiting for you at home is what inspires you to get up in the morning and go to work. To keep going, no matter what it takes, to make sure your family is moving forward and doing well and is provided for.” Jose’s livelihood has always come from working in construction, a profession that is impossible to manage in sanctuary.
Along with many members of Congreso, Jose earned the title of “Reconstruction Worker” in the years after Katrina. Ever since then, Jose has been part of a larger struggle that many New Orleanians share -- the right to live here. “We’ve invested too much to be told now that we can’t remain in this city that we have rebuilt.”
In light of the dangers that exist beyond the walls of First Grace, Jose’s attitude is cautious, especially after he received word from the authorities about his case. At this time, they have not granted him a stay, meaning that he must remain in the limbo of sanctuary. “So the fight continues,” Jose says.
Working with Congreso and the greater community helps to renew Jose’s faith for the time being. “It helps a lot knowing that I’m not alone. I have hope that someday I will return to my family.”
Jose’s optimism extends far beyond his own case. For him, the struggle for freedom transcends borders. “We just want to been seen as human beings. I think that our society has lost sight of that. We need to focus on this fight that we all share.”