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.