On a Tuesday afternoon in late October 2014, six people at different churches in Arizona, Illinois, Oregon, and Colorado dialed in to a conference call. All of them were undocumented and had imminent orders of deportation to Mexico, El Salvador, or Guatemala. Three lived in Arizona—ground zero for the deportation of migrants caught up in what critics say is a dragnet of militarized border policing, racial profiling by law enforcement, and a punitive immigration system. The Arizona callers were Rosa Robles Loreto, a former accountant’s assistant who had been working as a house cleaner; Francisco Cordova, a burly, middle-aged construction worker; and Luis Lopez-Acabal, a slight, soft-spoken asylum applicant and young father of an autistic child.
“I hope we are putting pressure on Obama,” says Lopez-Acabal, who in early September moved into a tiny makeshift bedroom on a sprawling church campus in sunbaked Phoenix.
They were. In fact, people like Lopez-Acabal, Cordova, and Robles Loreto are on the front lines of the latest sanctuary movement. It’s a fresh take on an old tradition: that houses of worship should provide shelter to those persecuted and in need—in this case, migrants who want to remain with their families and seek protection from immigration officials who would send them away. Robles Loreto moved into a small, clean room with a bunk bed back in August. Lopez-Acabal and Cordova took refuge in separate churches the following month.
On November 20, President Barack Obama announced his executive order on immigration reform, expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and creating a similar program for some immigrant parents, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). The programs don’t provide a path to citizenship; according to the White House, they allow an estimated 5 million qualifying immigrants to push back their deportation dates by three years. But a remaining 6 million undocumented immigrants wouldn’t have a shot at applying for deferral; these include recent refugees from Central America and the parents of Dreamers—undocumented youths brought to the United States as children.
Cordova watched the televised speech with some 50 congregation members at St. Francis in the Foothills, a church in an upscale part of Tucson. Both Lopez-Acabal and Cordova, whose children were either born in the United States or are permanent residents, would qualify for DAPA. As he tried to process the information he was hearing, Cordova was struck by an unexpected, suddenly overwhelming desire to go home and sleep in his own bed that night.
At the same moment, several miles away, Robles Loreto gathered with around 100 of her supporters at the progressive Southside Presbyterian Church in South Tucson. It was a bittersweet moment for her. Because Robles Loreto had temporarily left the United States for Mexico 11 years ago and given birth to her sons there, she would not qualify for DAPA.
“I’m happy to hear about the people who have some relief, but I’m going to continue on the path,” Robles Loreto told the Tucson Sentinel.
Even this limited elation felt by many immigrants would not last. In early December, Texas led 25 other states in a lawsuit alleging that President Obama’s executive orders had overstepped the Constitution. In February 2015, Federal District Court Judge Andrew Hanen issued a temporary injunction halting the implementation of DAPA and the expansion of DACA.
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For the three immigrants living in sanctuary in Arizona, the events that eventually led to their deportation orders seemed insignificant in the beginning. Four years ago, law enforcement called the Border Patrol on Robles Loreto when she accidentally made a turn into a construction area. In 2009, Cordova was turned over to immigration officials when his brother’s house was robbed, and police saw that his car, parked nearby, wasn’t registered in the state. In 2007, Lopez-Acabal was pulled over for swerving while driving late at night after a long day of school and work.
After trying to navigate the complicated legal process in the years following their encounters with immigration police, all three were told in 2014 that they had exhausted their legal resources. All received final deportation orders.
Then Tucson-based attorney Margo Cowan had an idea—one inspired by a similar crisis in the 1980s.
Today’s sanctuary movement is being revived by many of the same communities of faith that in the 1980s transported and sheltered up to 500,000 refugees fleeing US-trained and -funded death squads in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. At the movement’s height, more than 500 congregations nationwide hosted refugees and operated an underground railroad that moved migrants from Mexico to cities all over the United States and as far north as Canada. The federal government sent informants to spy on the movement, and in 1986, a federal grand jury indicted 16 key activists—including three nuns, two priests, and a minister—with smuggling aliens, before attorneys working with the sanctuary movement filed a lawsuit that forced the United States to stop discriminating against refuge-seekers from Central America in its asylum laws.
“For faith communities, the ethical mandate was very clear,” says John Fife, a cofounder of the sanctuary movement who served as pastor at Southside Presbyterian during the 1980s and was one of the activists indicted by the grand jury. “When so many people were being killed, we had to move from advocacy and protest to active resistance.” Fife drew inspiration from the abolitionist movement, from the churches that sheltered the Jews in Eastern Europe during the 1930s and ’40s, and from conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.
Cowan had been practicing law since 1976. Back in the ’80s, she was a leader in and an attorney for the sanctuary movement. These days, Cowan still represents immigrants in court, and she’s only added weapons to her arsenal of defense. Since the mid-2000s, if she was unable to close a deportation case, Cowan would sometimes advise her clients to hold a press conference and threaten to move into a nearby church. She says she successfully closed five or six deportation cases in the years before 2014 by using this tactic.
“It would work like a charm,” she says. “We never had to even get past the front door [of the church] before [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] would be calling us on the phone.”
For a few years, from 2011 to 2014, Cowan adds, it was even “easy” for attorneys to close deportation cases for people who, like Robles Loreto and Lopez-Acabal, had no criminal histories and had been given final removal orders. That’s because in 2011, John Morton, then the director of ICE, issued a pair of memos calling on agency attorneys and employees to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” and deprioritize deporting noncitizens with close family, educational, military, or other ties in the United States, as well as those who were crime victims or witnesses to crimes or who posed no threat to public safety.
But all of that changed in the spring of 2014, when, without warning, the regional ICE office in Phoenix stopped granting stays of deportation, even in “clear-cut” cases where removal orders had been issued based on administrative errors made by negligent attorneys, Cowan says. Suddenly, ICE stopped following its own announced rules, and the tactics that had succeeded for years in securing stays of deportation ceased to work. “Immigration law changes at every blink of an eye,” Cowan notes.
That’s when she urged one of her clients, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, who had been pulled over for a leaky tailpipe, to take sanctuary in May of last year. Neyoy Ruiz says that he had just had his car worked on before the incident and was never issued a ticket. His car was impounded on the spot.
“I think they stopped me because I looked Hispanic,” he says.
Neyoy Ruiz’s case kicked off the latest incarnation of the sanctuary movement when he moved into Southside Presbyterian and announced that he would stay as long as it took to win a stay of deportation. Less than a month passed before he was granted a one-year stay and returned home.
“What it means to me is another opportunity for me and my family to fight for me to stay,” he says. “If it were just me, maybe I would go back. But I have my son here; he’s a US citizen.”
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Back in October, during their weekly call, the migrants in sanctuary talked about the status of their deportation cases, gave updates on their families, and discussed what they hoped President Barack Obama would do to help their cases. They shared their frustration over the fact that the president had postponed taking action on creating a path to US citizenship for the 11 million people living and working without legal status.
Six months later, with the president’s executive order now stalled, many of these people remain in limbo, says Sarah Lanius, an organizer with No More Deaths, a humanitarian-aid group based in Tucson.
“Sadly, the executive order from November 2014 doesn’t eliminate the fact that many people continue to be deported and that families are separated,” Lanius says. “Even when these programs are eventually implemented—as is the thinking of many of the best legal and policy minds in this country—there remain questions regarding how well these policies will be implemented.”
And since families like Robles Loreto’s would still be left out, Lanius says, sanctuary will continue to be a “tactic of last resort.” But, she adds, it’s important for faith communities and others to find ways to support migrants in the removal process before deportation papers are issued.
A free legal clinic called Keep Tucson Together is one example, she says. The clinic referred Neyoy Ruiz, Robles Loreto, and Cordova to Cowan.
According to the website Sanctuary2014.org, today’s sanctuary movement has won six out of the 10 cases it has taken on since last year. Thousands of supporters have signed petitions on behalf of the migrants who’ve moved into sanctuary-friendly churches after receiving final deportation orders. Thousands of people in faith communities phoned ICE officials and wrote letters to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. As of March, two dozen congregations nationwide, in states including Missouri and Washington, had agreed to welcome immigrants into sanctuary.
US courts have ruled both ways on whether churches sheltering people without legal immigration status are breaking the law. Since 2011, ICE has stated that its policy is to avoid “sensitive” areas like churches, schools, and hospitals. Robles Loreto, Cordova, and Lopez-Acabal were among the first people in three decades to test the limits of the law. They and their host congregations hope that legal and political advocacy, and going public with their stories, will persuade immigration authorities to close their cases and let them stay. Halting one deportation at a time may seem like a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, but with executive action stalled, millions of undocumented migrants and their allies are watching these cases closely.
“Our short-term and immediate goals are to stop deportations from happening,” says the Rev. Noel Anderson, a coordinator for the national nonprofit Church World Service. “At the national level, it’s to win deferred action for as many people as possible.”
For a while in the fall, up until Obama’s announcement, the movement seemed to grow by the day, says Southside’s pastor, the Rev. Alison Harrington. Four people took sanctuary during the month of September, in Arizona, Oregon, and Chicago. The next month was slower; only one person—a man in Denver—sought refuge in a church. In November, before the president’s announcement, another man in Arizona sought sanctuary, and a woman in Philadelphia moved into a church with her husband, son, and daughter.
For people with nothing left to lose, sanctuary is the obvious choice, says Cordova, who migrated to Tucson from Sonora, Mexico, almost 20 years ago, at age 18. When he received the letter notifying him of his January 2014 deportation date, Cordova says, he considered moving his five kids and wife to Mexico. But memories of his impoverished childhood made him worry about his prospects there. He spent many sleepless nights considering his options: “If I stay, I break the law,” he recalled thinking. “If I go, I break my family.”
In the end, he decided to stay. In late September, he moved into a small peach-colored room in an upscale church outside Tucson.
“Some days are difficult,” Cordova says. He felt guilty for not being able to help his wife care for the children. But “the people here receive me like I am a part of their family.”
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Southside Presbyterian, where Neyoy Ruiz stayed and where Robles Loreto still resides—is arguably the heart of the movement. On a hot day there, a Unitarian Universalist delegation of about 40 people from different cities gathered at an information session for those interested in making their churches sites for sanctuary. Southside is a progressive church where, during Sunday services, prayers are offered for “Iraq, Iran, Syria, and all migrants everywhere.”
Robles Loreto addressed the crowd, whose members ranged from college age to retired. Wearing stylish glasses with thick plastic frames, she spoke about her 60 days in detention after getting pulled over by a sheriff back in 2010 for accidentally driving into a construction area. The sheriff asked her for immigration papers, and when she couldn’t provide any, he called the Border Patrol.
“This is bigger than just me,” Robles Loreto said, referring to the suffering that she witnessed in detention, and the many other undocumented migrants she knew whose lives had been ruined after being cited for simple traffic violations. But sanctuary at Southside, she said, had been a “beautiful” experience.
“I find myself saying to God, ‘You want me here,’” she continued. “It’s teaching me so much, and I feel blessed. This place is a second home for my kids.”
“Sanctuary” might sound like a meditation retreat or an artists’ residency—and it can be that at times. Robles Loreto practices her English using a computer course, and says she’s catching up on sleep for the first time in her adult life. Neyoy Ruiz started painting during his time at Southside. But sanctuary can also be like living under house arrest for weeks, even months, confined to the grounds of a church. There’s no leaving to take a stroll or swing by the grocery store. Cordova had to miss the funeral of a close friend. Family and friends can visit and sometimes spend the night, but the quarters are cramped and privacy is next to nonexistent. There are also the challenges that come with living in extremely close quarters with people who, for all practical purposes, are strangers who speak a different language.
In August, when Robles Loreto first moved into the tiny room with a bunk bed at Southside, she was certain that her case would be closed within a month. Now, more than eight months later, no one can say when it will finally be decided, although Harrington says she is welcome to stay for “as long as it takes.”
“The temptation is to think that sanctuary is not working,” Harrington adds. “But it is. Rosa is here, not in a detention center and not wondering where her kids are.”
Even so, the months are wearing on her.
“My faith has been tested time and again,” Robles Loreto said in late March. “Why, when I have tried to live an honest and good life, do I face the choice of either losing my family and my life, or remaining in sanctuary for years to come?”
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For months, while Robles Loreto, Cordova, and Lopez-Acabal remained in sanctuary, ICE officials maintained that they did not then intend to take enforcement action against them. Finally, in December, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations acting field office director in Phoenix, Jon Gurule, agreed to administratively close Cordova’s and Lopez-Acabal’s cases. But he refused to close Robles Loreto’s case or grant her a stay of deportation.
As long as the situation remains the same, says Cowan, Robles Loreto won’t be safe anywhere except in sanctuary. There is no guarantee that the police wouldn’t pull her over or call the Border Patrol on her again.
Long before Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 made headlines nationally—and the US Supreme Court struck down most of its provisions—racial profiling during traffic stops had been well documented. A 2008 ACLU report reviewing data on the highway stops and vehicle searches made in the state between July 2006 and June 2007 found that, on average, Hispanics were two and a half times more likely than whites to be searched—despite the fact that whites were more likely to be carrying contraband.
“That’s just the way law enforcement does business near the border,” Cowan says.
Once a person is stopped, a provision of SB 1070 still in force requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of committing a crime. So one run-in with the police or the Border Patrol could land Robles Loreto back in handcuffs and on a bus headed to the border within hours of the encounter. It is not part of Border Patrol policy to contact the ICE field office before deporting an undocumented migrant, so the agents would never have the opportunity to hear from Gurule that deporting Robles Loreto is a low priority.
ICE and the Border Patrol “have separate functions and directives,” Cowan notes. “If Border Patrol see that the last event was a final order of removal, they would be obligated to take that person and put them on a bus and remove them. That’s their job.”
And that directly contradicts ICE’s policies and Obama’s order, Cowan contends. It’s “schizophrenic” and inhumane—but it won’t last, she adds. “We have Dreamers because we don’t have any relief. You can’t have this profound depth of suffering—particularly searing, race-based, generational Jim Crow–type schemes—and then say, ‘We’ll give you a document.’ It’ll never be OK. America will pay. The children of the Rosas, the Franciscos, and Daniels are going to make another world.”