On a normal week, José Chicas preaches from the altar of Iglesia Evangélica in Raleigh.
Today, his sermon echoes in a parking lot in Durham.
His words in Spanish punctuate the autumnal Friday afternoon, commanding attention even from the English speakers in the crowd. Nineteen people stand before him; his wife, Sandra Marquina, stands to the side, eyes closed, palms open to the sky.
“The United States is a nation that has been so blessed by God, but this nation has been hurt by the evil of those who govern it,” Chicas says.
In front of the group is the School for Conversion, a one-story yellow-green house with tomato plants in a backyard garden. For nearly all of Donald Trump’s presidency, Chicas has taken refuge inside the converted parish building.
He could preach like this on a Sunday morning, but he must stay in Durham. If he takes a step from the school property to the sidewalk, he could be arrested and deported.
Chicas has lived inside the school since June 27, 2017; on the day of this article’s publication, he will have lived there for three years, three months, and 23 days. After more than one thousand days of isolation, he says his chance of returning home to his family in Raleigh is riding on Election Day. If Joe Biden gets elected, he waits until January 20. If Donald Trump gets re-elected, he could be sent back to El Salvador and wait, isolated from his wife and children, until at least 2030.
In 2017, Trump began the process of ending protections for asylum-seekers from El Salvador and several other countries. Although the decision was challenged in court, it was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals on September 14. While the U.S. says the civil unrest in the country is over, Marquina and Chicas believe the country is still volatile. Deportees may face an extra degree of danger: The Guardian reported in February that at least 200 deportees had been killed or assaulted after returning to El Salvador, where gang violence makes it feel like a warzone.
The purpose of the Friday prayer vigil was to honor Chicas, Eliseo Jimenez, and Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, also known as the NC Sanctuary Three. All three have lived in churches for over a year. Many people in their situation thought they’d only be there a few months, and some of them were right: Minerva Cisneros Garcia was allowed to go free after living in a Greensboro church with her children for four months. Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz left a Chapel Hill church for the first time in two years this August. Samuel Oliver Bruno, who spent 11 months at a Durham church, was arrested by undercover I.C.E. agents and forced back to Mexico in 2019.
“I love my country, but I don’t want to live over there,” Chicas says. “I love the United States; I love North Carolina. I want to go to my country one month or three weeks and come back.”
Chicas’s mother originally wanted him to go to the United States. As a teen in 1980s El Salvador, he had two options: join the military dictatorship’s right-wing armed forces, or become part of Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, a leftist guerilla group. The Central American country was at the height of its civil war when Chicas fled to Texas in 1985. When he arrived, he was stopped by immigration officials. He was released but never showed up for his immigration court hearing. In 1988, he moved to North Carolina for work. Here, he met his wife. The couple has four children; the youngest, Ezequiel, is the only one still at home.
Mass I.C.E. arrests began in February 2017, shortly after Donald Trump took office. At that point, Chicas had a U.S. work permit and his own social security number. He paid taxes. He went to North Carolina’s I.C.E. office every year to check in with immigration officials. He also had a criminal record from the 1990s, when he was drinking heavily: one DUI charge and one report of domestic abuse (Marquina says he was never charged). He says his actions and attitudes changed when he became a devout Christian in 2002. He became the preacher of a small church.
That didn’t matter to I.C.E. agents. In early June, Chicas was told that he needed to leave, or face deportation back to El Salvador, a country he hadn’t been to in more than 30 years. The day before his order was up, he moved into the school. It was the day before Ezequiel’s 5th-grade graduation.
Things have been difficult from the jump. The house, a converted parish, has old appliances and bibles spread throughout. It’s homier than the other sanctuary setups, but it’s not home.
Chicas mentioned feeling lonely in two prior INDY articles, written in the days and months after his 2017 move. By 2019, he told an INDY reporter he felt like he was in jail.
“I pray to God to help me continue this process,” he said at the time. “I don’t feel like I have freedom.”
Like the rest of the country, the coronavirus pandemic amplified Chicas’s already-stressful situation. Before, he had small interactions to count on: Wednesday-night dinners with members of his church, or community members dropping off hot meals. Now, they leave the food on the porch. His family has struggled financially, too; Marquina, a housekeeper at NC State, is currently on partial furlough and working only three days a week.
The new normal, however, did provide one benefit: Thanks to the shift to online learning, Chicas can spend more time with his 14-year-old son.
If Trump gets re-elected, Chicas still plans to leave sanctuary—either to go back home to Raleigh or to return to El Salvador and wait. Ezequiel has mentioned wanting to go with him. His wife says she would prefer to stay here for her own safety and to send money back to El Salvador.
As Chicas continues his speech, rays of light break through the clouds and shine down onto the asphalt. It’s the first time the sun has come out all day.
“The government is only thinking of doing evil things: making weapons, making bombs, making missiles to kill others, separating families, and tearing families apart,” Chicas said. “But there is still time for us to love one another, and for us to pray to God for a change to come to this nation.”
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