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Man Says Government Shutdown Forced Him To Seek Sanctuary In Colorado Church

(CNN) - An undocumented immigrant in Colorado says he's taken shelter in a church because the government shutdown leaves him with no other choice. Miguel Ramirez Valiente is facing a deportation order -- but his lawyer says right now he has no way to fight it.

Most immigration courts are shuttered because of the shutdown. Judges are only hearing the cases of detained immigrants, while other cases are being postponed. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement's fugitive operations and removal divisions are still operating.

So Ramirez Valiente stood at the pulpit at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Wednesday and told reporters he was seeking sanctuary to fight for the chance to remain with his wife and three children.

Welcome sign Colorado Springs generic
(credit: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Attorney Lisa Guerra said that Ramirez didn't realize until recently that officials had reopened the immigration case against him last year. Ramirez, she says, missed a court date in October because notice never reached him. He learned in December that he'd been ordered removed, she says.

Guerra said she's filed a motion to reopen the case in the Denver Immigration Court, which is closed. And now her hands are tied.

"With the government shutdown, mail basically goes into a box," she told reporters. "There are no judges to decide that motion to reopen. There is no office of chief council to speak with about the case. ... We are basically in a legal limbo, waiting for the government to reopen."

Wife: 'My three children and I are terrified'

In an automated email reply to CNN's request for comment on the case, ICE said its media personnel can't respond to queries due to the shutdown.

Notifications are sent to someone's last known address, an ICE official told CNN. The official said they could not comment on Ramirez's case, but said that in general, not receiving notice is not a legal defense.

ICE fugitive operations and removals are continuing during the shutdown, the official said, but some removals are delayed because immigration courts aren't hearing cases for immigrants that aren't detained. And some attorneys for the agency are furloughed.

Ramirez, a stonemason, said gang violence forced him to flee El Salvador 14 years ago. He's been fighting his immigration case since 2011, after a traffic stop by a local sheriff landed him in ICE custody.

A judge administratively closed the removal case against him last year, Guerra said, after Ramirez survived a workplace assault and applied for a visa for crime victims.

Ramirez said he would have showed up in court if he'd known the case against him had been reopened.

"I've been fighting my case for eight years," he said. "I never missed a court date."

His wife, Alisha Ramirez Valiente, told reporters Wednesday that she didn't know what she'd do if authorities sent her husband to El Salvador.

"The government shutdown is tearing our family apart. My three children and I are terrified that he will be deported. His children need him. So do I," she said. "I hope that him being in sanctuary will give him enough time for the government to reopen and his motion to be reviewed."

Dozens in sanctuary

The partial government shutdown has lasted for weeks as President Trump and lawmakers spar over funding for his proposed border wall. Much of the US immigration system has ground to a halt during the stalemate.

Immigration courts that don't handle detainees' cases are completely closed.

And it could be a matter of years, not a matter of a few weeks, before postponed cases are heard in court, the head of the immigration judges' union told CNN last week.

"It's a huge, huge disruption for the orderly processing of cases," Judge Ashley Tabaddor said, describing the shutdown as "another disruption on top of the docket shuffling the administration already does."

It's not clear why Ramirez's case was reopened last year. Officials from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the branch of the Justice Department that runs US immigration courts, could not be immediately reached for comment. Many judges and office employees have been furloughed as a result of the partial government shutdown.

Last year, former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that immigration judges were not allowed to use their discretion to close cases. Closure effectively ended proceedings but didn't dismiss cases altogether.

Ramirez is one of some 50 immigrants who've taken sanctuary in churches since President Trump took office, according to Church World Service.

They are searching for solutions to their immigration cases and hoping ICE will stick to its policy of not arresting anyone in "sensitive locations" -- schools, hospitals or houses of worship -- except in extenuating circumstances.

On Wednesday, the Colorado Springs church's minister told reporters that her congregation was honored to offer sanctuary to Ramirez.

"It's important to remember the true crisis is not at the border, but rather within the borders of the United States, beyond hardworking government employees being put on furlough and services being shut down," the Rev. Nori Rost said. "The true crisis we face is the moral one of not honoring the country's history of providing a safe haven for those fleeing violence."

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

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