Over the past several years, waves of immigrants have come into the United States to escape violence and sterile job opportunities in their home countries.
For Sixto and Ismael – two immigrants from Mexico – it was the latter.
After more than two decades of establishing life in Arizona, both men were forced to leave their homes after being faced with the threat of deportation for expired documents, they explained in an interview.
For Ismael, the confines of local church grounds in north Phoenix have now been home for more than a year; for Sixto, more than six months.
Sanctuary at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, they said, has become their “pillar” of hope.
Various reports state that the sanctuary movement started in the 1980s when churches started to provide sanctuary to Central Americans who were fleeing violence.
Today, more than 200 cities nationwide provide sanctuary for various types of immigrants, the Center for Immigration Studies reported.
However, with the recent 2016 election victory of President-elect Donald J. Trump, many are left with the imminent question of what fate lies ahead for sanctuary cities and all those who call sanctuary home.
The Relationship Between ICE and Sanctuaries
The topic of illegal immigration was inflamed and ever-present among the political rhetoric surrounding both presidential candidates in the contentious 2016 elections.
One of Trump’s most controversial campaign promises was the termination of sanctuary cities.
Trump campaigned heavily on the idea that sanctuary cities are harboring and protecting convicted criminal immigrants from deportation.
Trump used the shooting death of a 31-year-old woman in San Francisco as a primary argument in his campaign.
The suspect was identified as Mexican immigrant Francisco Sanchez who had been previously deported more than five times and had a record of seven felony convictions, according to various media reports.
The city’s sanctuary city status was the subject of blame. Sanchez disclosed in an interview with one ABC News outlet that he kept returning to San Francisco because he knew that immigration officers would not pursue him.
While there is no solid definition of what sanctuary is or what entails providing sanctuary, there are many misconceptions about what policies are being implemented and how.
Currently, cities across the U.S., such as San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago, have policies in place to prevent local law enforcement from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce immigration law and deportations.
Just days after Trump’s victory, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray vowed the city would remain a sanctuary city.
Chicago followed suit within a week when Mayor Rahm Emanuel said “Chicago always will be a sanctuary city.”
While some churches in Arizona provide sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation, such as Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix and Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, the cities say they have no official policies that prevent local law enforcement officials from cooperating with immigration matters.
When a person is arrested, the law enforcement agency will gather background information, which may include immigration status.
Agencies can then share this information with ICE, which will determine if that person is deportable based on their designated priority status.
ICE may submit a detainer, which is a written request sent to local law enforcement or jails to retain an individual for up to an additional 48 hours before release. This allows ICE to decide whether or not the prisoner being released should be removed from the country.
This does not mean that the person will be deported, however. The person may be found innocent and released from jail.
This also does not mean that all deportees are undocumented immigrants. Lawful permanent residents and visa holders may be deported for certain charges.
As the detainer is just a request, local law enforcement agencies do not have to comply with fulfilling the request or even initially reporting immigration status to ICE when a person is apprehended.
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union claim this detention process is unconstitutional, alleging that it is a tool to “imprison people without due process” or any form of pending formal charges.
Soon after Trump’s election, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton released a statement that said local law enforcement “will never turn into a mass deportation force,” but did not clarify specific policy measures.
The city of Tucson prevents local law enforcement officers from asking the legal status of victims and witnesses.
South Tucson, however, will not honor an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer unless the cost of detaining an individual is paid for or reimbursed by ICE.
Pima County jails will notify immigration authorities when a prisoner is being released. However, if the immigration authorities do not pick up the released person, then that individual is released into society.
While Trump promised to end sanctuary cities during his campaign, it is still unclear exactly how the president-elect will enforce this plan of action.
Facts About Illegal Immigration and Deportations
In a 2014 memorandum, the Department of Homeland Security laid out a policy to categorize immigrant removals by priority levels.
A priority 1 individual poses a threat to “national security, border security, and public safety” and represents “the highest priority to which enforcement resources should be directed”.
Criteria to be met in order to be categorized as a priority 1 include “aliens apprehended at the border or ports of entry while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States”, aliens suspected of terrorism or espionage, aliens involved in “criminal street gang” activity or convicted of a felony or aggravated felony.
Criteria for a priority 2 includes “aliens convicted of three or more misdemeanor offenses, other than minor traffic offenses or state or local offenses”, aliens unlawfully in the U.S. after Jan. 1 2014 and aliens deemed to have “abused the visa or visa waiver programs.”
Priority 3 aliens represent the lowest priority, and the DHS memorandum states “Priority 3 aliens should generally be removed unless they qualify for asylum or another form of relief under our laws” or if “in the judgement of an immigration officer, the alien is not a threat to the integrity of the immigration system”.
ICE reported the removal of 235,413 immigrants during fiscal year 2015. Of those deported, 146,132 were Mexican citizens.
The report said 94 percent of non-criminal immigration violators, or 96,045 individuals, were “individuals encountered by CPB agents and officers at or near the border or ports of entry.”
Furthermore, 98 percent of non-criminal immigration violators who were removed met an ICE priority level. Of those, 92 percent were categorized as priority 1.
Life in Sanctuary
In the northwest corner of the cluttered storage room beneath the church, tucked away behind a curtain of clothes hanging on a plastic rack, a Bible sits on Ismael’s twin bed.
Each morning, Ismael kneels beside his bed, opens his Bible, bows his head and prays.
Sometimes he prays for his family, for his blessings, for the church congregation and even for Trump. But most mornings, Ismael said, he prays for a successful road to legal status and the return to his life at home with his family.
Ismael first came to the United States in 1991. Over the course of almost 25 years, he established life in Arizona by working and starting a family.
In August of 2015, Ismael received a letter from ICE threatening his deportation due to an expired work permit. Refusing to abandon his family and life in Arizona, Ismael said, he decided to seek sanctuary.
Leaving behind his wife, his daughter and his son, Ismael has been living at the church for more than a year after the church agreed to take him in.
“Time passes and passes, and time continues to pass, and it continues being difficult with each day,” Ismael said. “Right now, it’s been a year and a month living here in the sanctuary, but we keep fighting.”
Although family members are welcome to visit any time during the day and during certain times at night, life in the sanctuary is very confined. If either man leaves the church premises, they may face possible apprehension and deportation.
Ismael explained that many of his daily interactions are confined to the screen on his phone, card games like Uno, Xbox matches with Sixto and activities outside such as basketball.
“It’s the most difficult thing there is because, well, you’re not in your house, you’re not with your children, you’re not with your wife,” Ismael said. “You don’t sleep in your house, you don’t sleep in your bed, you don’t know if they’re missing anything, if they need to go grocery shopping, go buy water, that sort of thing.”
Ismael said that one of the most challenging aspects of sanctuary is the inability to freely give his children advice. He said most of their conversations are held via text messages.
“It’s very sad being separated from your family,” he said.
Like Ismael, Sixto also lives in a modified classroom in a lower level of the church.
Sixto, who is originally from Sonora, Mexico, has been living in the United States for 32 years. In May, he said, his legal status was cancelled.
Sixto has been in sanctuary at the church for about six months.
He has three children: two girls and one boy.
His children are what motivates him to stay strong.
For Sixto, each day is different. While many of the daily activities remain unchanged, the attitude and atmosphere waver.
Some days begin with high spirits and a good frame of mind. Other days are plagued with the fear of what the future holds and the sadness of what life has become.
“It’s like being locked up,” Sixto said. “You don’t have anywhere to go.”
Most days, good or bad, begin with coffee and a morning read in the Bible. Then, if his appetite complies, Sixto cooks himself food after a walk around church grounds.
However, on difficult days, he said he will drink coffee throughout the morning and afternoon, eating food only in the evening.
“Sometimes I go play pool, a little basketball or go for a walk,” Sixto said. “That is the routine here, but you’re always thinking about your family and what will happen with your case.”
Over the course of his time at the church, he explained, the memories of normal life experiences become faded and nearly forgotten in midst of life in sanctuary.
“Sometimes you forget the experiences as a human being,” Sixto said. “I’ve seen here in the church, there’s lots of peace, tranquility, support and mainly they look at you as human being, like people should see each other outside in the real world.”
The “Pillar” of Hope
For Ismael and Sixto, Shadow Rock has served as a “pillar” of hope for their future, they said.
“Life here in the sanctuary is very peaceful,” Sixto said. “In one way or another, they are always giving you comfort. They help you remain strong when you get bad news, they’re like a pillar to you.”
Since June of 2014, the church has provided sanctuary for a total of four men.
The church began to provide sanctuary after immigration-rights groups and an attorney brought a family in need to their attention, Rev. Kenneth Heintzelman, the senior minister of Shadow Rock, said.
In an effort to keep the family from being separated, he said, the church agreed to take him into sanctuary.
Before they are brought to sanctuary at Shadow Rock, each person is vetted by the attorney, Heintzelman said.
“[The attorneys] feel they have a good chance of winning the case and believe in fighting for their clients,” he said. “They are not criminals and they are just caught up in a broken system.”
The church does not have one denomination, but rather a combination of various denominations and beliefs, Heintzelman said. The shared “values of inclusion, values of justice and values of intimacy with spirit,” bring the congregation together, he said.
Heintzelman’s call to action, he said, is to end “grandstanding” immigration issues and “playing to people’s fears”, by proposing comprehensive immigration reform.
He said, “we would have 1,000 attorneys contacting 1,000 churches and having 1,000 people at one time, all across this country, in sanctuary, calling for immigration reform.”
The previous men who sought sanctuary at Shadow rock, he said, were both successful in their legal fight for immigration. For one, he said, it may have even saved his life from torture and death in his home country, Guatemala.
“A call to action in a large way would be to have comprehensive immigration reform,” Heintzelman said. “And to have an immigration policy that works — and works for everybody.”
Currently, Sixto and Ismael are going through of the legal process with their attorneys on their cases.
“I don’t want to hide from anyone, I want to be like everyone else and have a normal life,” Sixto said.”If I am here, it’s because I don’t want to go back to Mexico, I want to stay here. My family is here and I want to be with them.”
But, in the meantime, the two men said they are doing what they can to stay busy and help repay the church for their help.
“Here we have to continue to press forward and not throw in the towel,” Ismael said. “They make you out to be a criminal. So fight until the end so you can be with your families and so that there are no more family separations and may God bless you all.”