- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

DENVER (AP) - A Mexican man who has been living in a Denver church basement to avoid deportation says he is prepared to stay as long as it takes to gain the freedom to live in the U.S.

Arturo Hernandez, a 41-year-old contractor, has been granted sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver. Immigration officials say they do not pursue people wanted for immigration violations into sensitive areas like churches unless they have committed serious crimes.

Mr. Hernandez said the United States should welcome people willing to work hard, even if they are in this country illegally.

Admitting he got into a scrape with another contractor while laying floor tile, Mr. Hernandez says he was arrested and then acquitted when he went to trial. The deportation order came after his arrest, and he was ordered expelled from the country earlier this month.

Mr. Hernandez left his wife and two children and moved into the church basement Tuesday, and his family comes to visit almost every day.

“I believe my case represents the 10 million or more people who have come to this country without documentation or papers,” he said, sitting in the church sanctuary.

Mr. Hernandez pointed to a double bed with a zebra-striped blanket, a couch, table, a space heater and a television that make up his living quarters. He has access to a shower and a pantry stocked with donated food. Hernandez said he does not believe there will be a rush of immigrants seeking shelter because of the Spartan living conditions and restrictions that could keep him inside the building for months while the church fights for his freedom.

Jennifer Piper, a coordinator for a nationwide network of churches supporting or offering sanctuary, said there have been a number of people who have sought sanctuary over the past few years after the federal government launched a crackdown. Those who have sought and received sanctuary include a Tucson man who moved into a church in Arizona this year, a woman living in a Presbyterian church and an immigrant activist with a small-time drug conviction who moved into a church in Oregon.

Ms. Piper said six churches in Colorado and dozens of others across the country have promised to provide support and, in some cases, sanctuary as the movement to protect people facing deportation gains steam amid stalled immigration reform efforts.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks tighter immigration regulations, said it’s unrealistic for Hernandez and other sanctuary supporters to think they can have a major impact.

“I don’t see how this is going to make a lot of people more open to illegal immigration,” he said.

Pastor Mike Morran says it may be breaking the law to offer sanctuary, but he plans to keep it up until immigration policies change. Mr. Morran said he has been told he could be charged with harboring a fugitive because there is no federal law protecting churches. He believes that won’t happen.

“I do not believe we’re breaking the law. We’re not hiding anybody,” he said.

Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda also contributed to this report.

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