TUCSON, Ariz. – Rosa Robles Loreto could leave the small, Tucson church where she has spent the past year. But there is no guarantee she won’t be sent back to Mexico, her native country.
That’s enough to convince her to stay put, seeing her family only when they visit the church, and missing her sons’ baseball games and first day at school.
She isn’t alone. Two other immigrants living in the U.S. illegally remain in churches to avoid deportation, all women who are afraid of going to their home country for different reasons. They are like many immigrants left behind by lack of immigration reform.
Robles Loreto’s case is unique in that her entire family is living in the U.S. illegally. In other cases, her attorney says, the government has granted leniency to immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens as part of President Barack Obama’s policy to try to keep families together.
Robles Loreto says she is not leaving Southside Presbyterian Church until she has certainty that she will not be deported. Her case began five years ago when she was pulled over for a traffic infraction and turned over to immigration authorities. She began living at the church on Aug. 7, 2014.
There is no rule under federal law that prohibits agents from arresting immigrants in church, but it’s a practice the government generally avoids. Her husband and sons don’t face deportation because they have not been arrested or officially turned over to authorities.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has said Robles Loreto is not a priority for deportation anymore, but attorney Margo Cowan says she still runs the risk of arrest.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the matter of Ms. Robles Loreto’s immigration case by not taking action to enforce her removal order,” spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said in a written statement.
Robles Loreto, 42, has two sons who have grown up in the U.S., but were born in Mexico. She says she was living in Arizona when pregnant with both, but didn’t want to break any laws or rely on government assistance by giving birth to them here, so she returned home to have them in Mexico. If she’d had the boys here, her immigration case might be different.
The boys are 9 and 12 years old. They play little league baseball, and visit their mother on weekends and during breaks from school, when the family of four sleeps on an air mattress and in twin bunks in a small room at the church.
When she’s alone, Robles Loreto wakes up early, eats breakfast and cleans the church. She cooks dinner for her family, which her husband picks up after work. In the evening, she often participates in group prayers and reads or watches TV before going to bed. Robles Loreto, who worked cleaning houses before she moved into the church, says the days go by fast and her many visitors help her from feeling lonely.
But she feels moments of despair, especially when she misses family events.
“It’s like I lost a year,” she said.
Southside Presbyterian has been offering sanctuary to immigrants since the 1980s, when a wave of Central Americans fled civil wars there.
“I hope to see a day soon when Rosa can leave this church and know that she will see her children grow to adulthood in their home in Tucson,” The Rev. Alison Harrington said.
Cowan said she will keep persuading officials to grant Robles Loreto a stay of deportation or close her immigration case administratively. She hopes that an expansion of a program for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children will move forward so that Robles Loreto’s sons can enroll, which would make a stronger case for their mother. That program is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but an expansion of it that lowered the eligibility age has been put on hold by a federal judge.
For now, Robles Loreto has wide community support. Nearly 10,000 signs in support of her case are posted around Tucson on lawns and in front of businesses. Over a dozen elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, both Democrats, have written to the government to express support.
“Life has dealt Rosa this role of defending her family and of being a champion for all undocumented mothers that are facing this really unfathomable consequence of being separated from their children,” Cowan said.