Arnie Alpert is a retired activist, organizer, and community educator long involved in movements for social and economic justice. Arnie writes an occasional column Active with the Activists for InDepthNH.org.
When Eleazar Lopez Ayala arrived at the Norris Cotton Federal Building in Manchester on Monday, his family and dozens of local supporters feared they might not see him again.
Threatened with deportation to Honduras, a country he left as a teenager decades ago, Eleazar received a temporary reprieve and left with new hopes that a change in political winds might enable him to remain in New Hampshire with his wife and four children.
The ordeal began three years ago when Eleazar had a flat tire while driving through Deerfield and asked a nearby homeowner to use her phone to call for assistance. “When they left, the lady called the police,” recalled Eva Castillo of the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees.
The Deerfield police, in turn, called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for detention and deportation of unauthorized immigrants. Soon Eleazar was in jail, facing deportation for entering the country without a visa and for getting a flat tire in the wrong town.
In the months that followed, Eleazar’s story became a well-known local example of the cruelty of federal immigration policy, under which community members are torn from their families and returned to countries where they may be unsafe. Honduras, with the world’s third highest homicide rate in 2019, is a case in point.
Even the US State Department says Honduras has a record of “unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; killings of and threats to media members by criminal elements; widespread government corruption; and threats and violence against indigenous, Afro-descendent communities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.”
Since his time in ICE detention, Eleazar has received support from his local church, members of the Granite State Organizing Project, and a man from Keene who heard the story and donated funds for an immigration lawyer.
He has also had support from participants in the Interfaith Vigil for Immigrant Justice, a group which since 2017 has gathered at the Manchester ICE office every time they knew of immigrants scheduled for appointments with local ICE officials. Outside the Norris Cotton Federal Building, they have offered prayers and songs, and taken the “Jericho Walk,” seven times around the building calling for the walls of injustice to come tumbling down.
The vigils were suspended in March when ICE stopped requiring immigrants to show up in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But when members heard that Eleazar had been ordered to show up at the ICE office and to bring a one-way plane ticket to Honduras, they mobilized quickly.
After describing Eleazar’s plight to a group of about 40 people spaced safely in a wide circle in the plaza next to the federal office building, Castillo said, “Let’s pray for a miracle.”
Rev. Sara Rockwell, Rector at Saint Andrews Episcopal Church in Manchester, asked God for comfort and courage for Eleazar and his family.
“We pray that your mercy may prevail among those who work at ICE, who may have the leeway, they have the ability to stay this situation, and to grant him reprieve,” she said.
Rev. Jason Wells, Executive Director of the NH Council of Churches, followed, calling attention to the fact that the day was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the first major Nazi pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria, a date generally seen as the start of the Holocaust. No one questioned the relevance of the occasion.
When Eleazar and his family arrived, Rev. Rockwell led another prayer. Wheeling his suitcase beside him, Eleazar approached the building, went inside, and quickly returned to wait for the ICE agent. When he went in again, Maggie Fogarty of the American Friends Service Committee led the vigilers in “We Shall Overcome” followed by a period of silence.
Then, the miracle happened. Eleazar emerged from the building and announced he had been given a temporary reprieve, perhaps due to Hurricane Eta, which has shut down all air travel to Honduras, or perhaps due to the prayers. He has been given a new date to return to ICE with another plane ticket.
“I feel happier,” he told me. “Because now that they have given me another opportunity. We have to work on this to see if I can manage to remain here in this country with my family.”
According to Fogarty, the extension will give Eleazar a chance to work with his lawyer to gain more time, perhaps until a new president with a different attitude toward immigrants is inaugurated. That gives Eleazar hope.
“Hope is the last thing that ends,” he said.
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