TUCSON, Arizona — Rosa Robles Loreto was supposed to be deported by now. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gave her an Aug. 8 deadline to leave and return to Mexico, abandoning her job, husband, two young boys and home of the past 10 years.
But instead of heading to the border, on Thursday night Robles sat in the front seat of a tan PT Cruiser driving to a church near her home in Tucson, Arizona to seek sanctuary and defy ICE's orders.
Robles is being sheltered at the Southside Presbyterian Church, where immigration officers were unlikely to enter. ICE has a policy of not raiding a church unless there is a clear threat to national security or terrorism. She has no idea how long she will need to stay, but she knows her children won't be able to come with her; so she gives some parting advice to her youngest son.
“Emiliano, I want you to listen to your brother, ok?” she tells her eight-year-old son in the car. "He is going help you with your homework. You have your brother, and your brother has you.”
Thirty years ago, this small Presbyterian church, set in a quiet neighborhood near downtown Tucson, gained national attention when its members founded the Sanctuary Movement, which offers protection to undocumented Central American migrants. Back then, the migrants were fleeing the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. But now the movement helps people like Robles.
In 2010, Robles was pulled over by Tucson Police when she accidentally drove into a construction zone. Robles was turned over to Border Patrol, who detained her for 60 days before she was finally released pending her deportation proceedings. It would only be a matter of time before she was sent back to Mexico.
For the past three years, Robles and her family have been fighting to reverse her deportation order. Sanctuary at the presbyterian church is her last resort.
ICE spokesperson Amber Cargile told Fusion they are “conducting a comprehensive review of Ms. Robles Loreto’s case to determine appropriate next steps.”
When they arrived at the church, the family was flanked by dozens of supporting clergy and pastors as they approached the church's entrance.
Sitting in the middle of chapel, Robles addressed a crowd of about 50 supporters.
"This is my battle, and it’s the battle of many more just like me,” Robles said to applause. “I am here because I don’t want to leave my family.”
Robles says she will stay in the church until ICE reverses her deportation order. “If it’s one week, a few weeks, or a month, I will keep up the fight for my family. I will be here until the end, until we are victorious,” she said.
One by one, clergy and pastors addressed the family from the pulpit to promise the support of the congregations. Many denounced the government's failure to pass immigration reform.
“While our political representatives are enjoying their barbeques, our families are suffering,” said Holy Trinity Parish pastor Tom Tureman, referring to Congress’s August recess. “It is time to stop eating the barbeque and get back to work. It’s a humanitarian issue.”
Rosa Robles Loreto, pictured center, during the event at Southside Presbyterian Church / Photo by Steve Fisher
Just two months ago, the church took in undocumented Mexican immigrant Daniel Neyoy Ruiz and his family. Like Robles, Ruiz was scheduled for deportation. But he was given a 1-year stay by ICE after taking shelter in the church for five weeks. “These people will be with you,” Ruiz told Robles and her family. “Thanks for being part of this, and for leaving the shadows.”
As the crowd left the church, Robles' retired to her new home—a small room at the side of the church with just enough space for a mini-fridge, a table and a bunk bed. On the table sits a statue of Jesus holding a red rose. “This statue has been with us for years,” said Rosa’s husband Gerardo, who received a one year stay of deportation. For the foreseeable future, Gerardo will be charged with the care of their two young boys, who have just started school.
As Rosa prepares her bunk bed, Gerardo stocks the mini-fridge with Pepsi and water bottles. A supporter stays in the next room; the church's plan is to always have at least one person accompany her at the parish.
“I came here very nervous with all the cameras, but seeing so many people supporting me gave me a lot of courage,” she says.