Jose Chicas

About a month ago, a fifty-two-year-old evangelical pastor named Jose Chicas was overcome with an inexplicable craving.

For months, he’d been secluded inside a small religious space in Durham, and suddenly he had the urge to sink his teeth into a McDonald’s pancake. The thought of it hovered in front of his eyes like a mirage. Chicas hesitated, peered outside his front porch, and considered, for a fleeting moment, succumbing to the temptation.

But then, just as quickly, reality hit.

Chicas is undocumented, and since late June, Durham’s School for Conversion, a religious education center on the property of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, has provided him with cover from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. A deportation order brought Chicas to the church grounds the day he was supposed to board a one-way flight to El Salvador, June 27. Since then, he hasn’t taken a step outside, remaining holed up inside the modest, two-bedroom center’s comfy but tight confines.

The pancake presented a dilemma. As a matter of policy, immigration officials typically avoid conducting raids on religious spaces, which is why Chicas took up residence at the School for Conversion in the first place. An inch beyond the invisible ring of safety etched around the facility could have ended Chicas’s life as he knew it, sending him thousands of miles from the quiet, tree-lined street that now greets him every morning. Rationally, he knew that the risk wasn’t worth it.

So Chicas reconsidered his options, peeking outside once again. Perhaps he could recruit a generous passerby willing to bring back the coveted pancake—McDonald’s was only a few minutes away, after all, and surely any good American could understand a pancake craving.

Chicas waited, but no one showed up.

“There wasn’t anyone” he says. “And then I felt sad. It was a drive, so it wasn’t worth it. And then I think, When will I leave here?”

Chicas’s McDonald’s calculation is hard for most people to imagine. But for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States—and the 350,000 in North Carolina—it’s just one example of the routine tradeoffs you make to get through the day when the specter of deportation is always lurking. That’s especially true now, in what Chicas’s wife, Sandra, describes as an increasingly hostile political environment that is “harder for immigrants. There’s fear and intimidation. I think if Donald Trump wasn’t president, it would be different.”

Trump promised during the presidential campaign to restrict immigration, build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and deport millions of undocumented immigrants. Since the inauguration, he’s begun to make good on those promises. ICE arrests are up 43 percent this year, compared with 2016, and more than a quarter of those arrested have no criminal history. Trump has also expanded the groups prioritized for deportation to immigrants who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense”—meaning anybody who entered the country illegally.

Chicas was caught up in this new mandate. In 1985, he fled El Salvador’s violent civil war and crossed into Texas through the U.S.-Mexico border, where he was apprehended by immigration officials. He was released on bail but never turned up for his immigration court date, a decision he chalks up to bad legal advice. As a consequence, he was given a deportation order but was able to remain in the country through an approved application for asylum and, when that ran out, stays of removal. He eventually settled in Raleigh and traveled regularly to the Charlotte ICE field office for check-ins. He was given a social security number, work permit, and driver’s license; he also paid taxes.

But last spring, at Chicas’s annual ICE check-in, he finally ran out of luck. His deportation would no longer be put on hold, he learned. As Sandra tells it, this was collateral damage from the administration’s expanded deportation priorities.

“They told him, ‘Mr. Chicas, I’m sorry about the new administration. You need to go back to El Salvador,’” Sandra says. “And they explained to him, ‘It’s not you, it’s everyone with a deportation order.’”

He also may have been prioritized because of DUI and domestic violence charges from the 1990s. (The family says he wasn’t convicted.) He says he’s a changed person now—he struggled with alcoholism then but got sober in 2002, had a spiritual awakening, found God, became a pastor, and reconciled with Sandra.

Chicas’s supporters push back on the notion that his past disqualifies his future, saying his story is a testament to the faith community’s principles of transformation and second chances.

“I think most importantly we believe in forgiveness,” says the Reverend Noel Andersen, the national grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, which works with refugee and immigrant populations. “We believe in the reality that we have the opportunity to repent our wrongdoings and change. Which is what I understand pastor Jose Chicas’s story is all about. And if his wife can forgive him of his wrongdoings of the past, shouldn’t our criminal justice system forgive him? And shouldn’t our immigration system forgive him?”

Less than a decade after Chicas arrived in the United States, he met Sandra. The two got married in 1998 and had four children. They moved to a home on a quiet street in Raleigh and created a life together. Sandra landed a gig cleaning at N.C. State, which she’s had for the past seventeen years, and Jose worked as a custodian at a church.

His path to the ministry came out of his own experiences, his family says—especially the people who extended a hand to him when he was struggling with alcoholism.

“God put it in his heart,” Sandra says. “So he could help people, like the people who helped him when he needed it, to overcome his own vices.” In 2015, he got ordained and became a pastor of the forty-member Iglesia Evangélica Jesús el Pan de Vida in Raleigh.

Now, however, Chicas is in a different church for the foreseeable future.

The stocky, quiet Chicas has developed a routine for himself amid the uncertainty: up at dawn, wander outside to the balcony and take in the fresh air, read the Bible, doze off, wait for Sandra to drive the thirty minutes from Raleigh to the church around six thirty with dinner and food for the following day in tow.

On a visit in late September, Chicas sits bleary-eyed on a green sofa in a blue dress shirt and black jeans. There’s an old TV in the room, a stack of books, and a black-and-white poster tacked on the wall that reads, “Stop separating families.” Behind Chicas, on a small wooden table, sits a crumpled McDonald’s bag.

He had a handful of visitors that afternoon, but sometimes long stretches of time go by without hearing from anyone other than his immediate family. Still, Chicas has found some allies among the Triangle’s faith communities. The family has also gained the support of the Reverend William J. Barber II, formerly of the North Carolina NAACP, who was touched by a speech made by Chicas’s eleven-year-old son, Ezequiel, at an immigration rally near the legislature in June. The family hadn’t planned on having one of their own speak, but, after a reporter asked them to share their story, Ezequiel stepped forward.

“Without your mom and dad, you cannot know what is good and bad,” he told the crowd of about three dozen people. “I hope you can help me with my father not leaving me.”

Barber, who had never met the family, was moved.

“He said that he felt God touched him, and he called my husband ‘my brother’ and said, ‘I have to help him,’” Sandra says. “And then this lady told me, ‘Reverend Barber offered sanctuary.’ I said, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘I’ll explain to you later.’”

The Chicas family eventually found out what she was talking about. School for Conversion, led by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the associate pastor of St. John’s, would offer Chicas safe haven in the form of sanctuary.

The sanctuary movement rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1980s, when churches opened their doors to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars. It was the Cold War era, and the Reagan administration famously denied their asylum claims, arguing that they were economic, not political, refugees.

“People were fleeing, coming with torture marks, and our government was saying, ‘No, this isn’t an asylum case,’” says Anderson of CWS. “Clearly it was. So people took it upon themselves to essentially do the work of refugee resettlement without any help from the government and advocated for reforms.”

The movement has seen a resurgence as of late, Anderson says, but with a slightly different objective. In the eighties, it was about getting refugees fleeing war into the country; now, he says, “we’re trying to protect people who are already here.”

According to data from ICE, deportations reached a peak in 2012, when more than four hundred thousand people were removed from the country, earning President Obama the dubious nickname “deporter in chief.”

Counterintuitively, perhaps, deportations have actually fallen under Trump’s presidency thus far, despite an increase in ICE arrests. According to federal data, the agency deported 211,068 immigrants in the 2017 fiscal year, down from 240,255 in 2016.

Despite this decline, sanctuary cases have risen.

In 2016, there were five public sanctuary cases in the U.S.; today, there are thirty, in states ranging from Arizona to Illinois, Anderson says. Two are in North Carolina. (That number is down from three, after Minerva Garcia, a Mexican mother who was taking sanctuary at a church in Greensboro, left after her deportation order was vacated last month.)

Anderson speculates that part of the spike may be related to changing ICE protocol: “A lot of these people [who were deported] would have been victims of what we know as silent raids, where they go to their check-in, and they’ve been going to their check-in for years, and all of a sudden they’re gone.” Now, he says, ICE often tries “to give at least some orderly removal. They’ll say, ‘OK, come back in a month with a plane ticket,’ and then we know what’s going to happen. And so a lot more people are going into sanctuary precisely because of these scenarios.”

That’s what happened to Chicas.

In offering sanctuary, Wilson-Hartgrove was animated by what he believes is a moral case for Chicas to stay in the country: to pastor his church, remain with his family, and be part of the community he’s been involved with for decades. As long as Chicas remains in the church, he will likely be shielded from deportation, due to a self-imposed ICE “sensitive locations” policy, which generally avoids immigration enforcement at medical facilities, public demonstrations, and places of worship.

The agency is aware of Chicas’s decision. In an email, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox acknowledged that ICE has not “taken action to arrest Mr. Chicas at the church in accordance with its sensitive locations policy” but added that the agency wouldn’t be precluded from action should Chicas leave the grounds: “A final order of removal issued by a federal judge does not expire. That judicial order would remain in effect at whatever point any person exits a sensitive location.”

Chicas’s friends, family, and allies are hoping it doesn’t come to that. Wilson-Hartgrove is prepared to provide sanctuary to Chicas for as long as he needs, until his case is resolved—years, perhaps. But it’s unclear if his family is ready for that scenario.

When asked, Sandra sighs. “I don’t want to be negative,” she says. “But if they don’t help us, give any relief to him, I tell him, OK, I have to support you for the next three years. The years Donald Trump will be in the White House. And I don’t know if he’s ready for that. It’s a small space. This situation is very difficult.”

Sandra is more comfortable talking about the impacts on the economic and psychological well-being of her family, including their four children, who range in age from eleven to twenty-three. Ezequiel, their youngest, has been deeply affected, she says. He was once a high-performing and well-behaved student, but his grades started to slip in the spring, right after Chicas learned of his deportation.

“He is affected a lot,” Sandra says. “His life. His grades. He used to be one of the smart boys, very good in the school. Now he’s seeing a psychologist because he cries every day. He misses his father. He says, ‘It’s not fair what’s happening. It’s not fair.’”

Their eighteen-year-old daughter has struggled with depression. “She had to be hospitalized because of depression,” Sandra says. “And it’s like nobody cares. They don’t care how she is suffering. She was born in this country and needs my husband here.”

When Sandra goes to work at N.C. State, she doesn’t want to leave her daughter at home. But there’s not much she can do, because she has to work—in fact, she’s currently looking for a weekend job, too. Jose, stuck inside the church, can no longer work, so Sandra has become the family’s breadwinner.

“The emotional and economic pain they’re causing is too much,” she says. “Because I leave a daughter who needs me. If my husband was working, I could stay here with her. But I can’t. And I leave her in God’s hands. I say, ‘God, take care of her, because I don’t have another choice.’”

Although the Chicas family has tried to make noise about the case, they sometimes can’t help but feel forgotten—by other churches, by members of their own community, and by people hesitant to jump to the defense of someone with a less-than-sterling past.

Durham, of course, has rallied around undocumented immigrants before. In January 2016, Wildin Acosta, an undocumented student from Honduras, was detained on his way to Riverside High School and sent to an immigration detention center in Georgia. His case sparked a massive public outcry. After months in detention, ICE released him in August 2016. (Last month, his asylum case was postponed until December.)

“I was hoping, waiting that all the people I knew were going to come and support me,” says Chicas. “When days go by and I haven’t had any contact with anyone, any phone calls, I can feel like they’ve left me. There was one time where almost two weeks passed when I didn’t have contact with anyone other than my family. I was wondering, What happened? I felt sad.”

Sandra says she’s sought aid from community pastors from a range of congregations, to no avail. She hoped they’d come to Chicas’s defense and speak out in support of his plight.

“Maybe they’re scared, or maybe it’s because a lot of pastors think that Trump is the best,” she says. “I don’t know.”

The Chicases were also hoping to get support from state lawmakers, but the list of people who have signed on to help is not very long. So far, they’ve gotten letters of support from Durham Mayor Bill Bell, council member Cora Cole-McFadden, and Chapel Hill Town Council member Maria Palmer. (Bell will step down next month, and Cole-McFadden and Palmer both lost their reelection bids last week.)

Looking for higher-profile allies, Sandra says the family also reached out to Republican Senator Thom Tillis, whom she says “didn’t support us,” and to U.S. Representative David Price, a Democrat whose district covers parts of Raleigh. Tillis’s office did not respond to the INDY‘s request for comment. But the freshman senator has emerged as a new face in the immigration debate. In September, he introduced a “conservative Dream Act” that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of young undocumented immigrants but has stricter requirements than Democratic alternatives and would involve “extreme vetting” for applicants.

Price’s communications director, Sawyer Hackett, declined to comment on Chicas’s case but provided the INDY with the following statement: “Congressman Price is aware of the growing number of individuals in North Carolina and across the country who have chosen to seek refuge in a community of faith instead of facing likely deportation. He shares the concern expressed by many of his constituents about the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement tactics, and he has urged the administration to prioritize the removal of individuals who pose an actual threat to their communities instead of those who pose no threat and have strong ties to this country.”

The family was also disappointed by the response from Governor Roy Cooper. Sandi Velez, a family friend, says she contacted Cooper’s office to ask for a letter of support. In a subsequent conversation with one of Cooper’s staffers, Velez says, she was told they “support our moral efforts but cannot show advocacy” and “will not cross the line because it is a federal issue.”

Sandra says politicians’ tepid support for Jose has given her new insight into the ways of the world. She uses herself as an example. Historically, she always supported Republicans, because she believed that they represented the “party of God.” Now things look different.

“It opened my eyes,” she says. “I used to be like, I love God, I’m a Christian, I’m going to support Republicans. It’s the party of God. But they have shown me that’s not true.”

As an example, she points to Donald Trump.

“He says he loves evangelical pastors. Well, there’s an evangelical pastor in Durham. He’s my husband. Trump doesn’t care.”