On Friday afternoon, Jose Chicas was worried.
About thirty-six hours later, armed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents were supposed to launch a mass roundup of undocumented immigrants. President Trump had promised “millions” of deportations in a tweet earlier that week, ahead of his reelection kickoff, though administration officials were telling reporters a few thousand were more likely.
When those raids started, Chicas thought, he might no longer be safe. After all, they knew right where he was. He hadn’t gone anywhere in two years.
Chicas, fifty-four, was sitting on the front porch of the School for Conversion, a small religious center on the grounds of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Durham that he’s called home since June 27, 2017. An undocumented immigrant with a deportation order hanging over his head, living here has been his only option: ICE abides by a policy to avoid detaining immigrants at medical facilities, public demonstrations, and places of worship.
But that policy isn’t a law. ICE could simply change its mind. And if Trump thought a harder line against undocumented immigrants might help him get elected, Chicas considered that a possibility.
“This man is crazy,” Chicas said. “He might turn around and sign an order for the agents to go to church services.”
That hasn’t happened—at least not yet. On Saturday, Trump announced that he was calling off the ICE raids. (An ICE spokesman told the INDY the agency’s sensitive-locations policy “remains in effect.”)
So for now, Chicas will remain here, at the School for Conversion, waiting—though he’s not entirely sure what for. Trump’s presidency will last at least another nineteen months. What if he wins again? What if he doesn’t—will a Democrat be any better? Will Chicas be allowed to leave this building? Will he be allowed to stay in the country?
In January 2018, of thirty-six immigrants living in sanctuary in the U.S., seven* were in North Carolina. Since then, one—Samuel Oliver-Bruno—has been deported. Two have seen their deportation orders canceled, the Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia reported last week.
Four, including Chicas, remain in sanctuary. Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz, who fled Honduras after her ex-partner stabbed her multiple times sought sanctuary in the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill in April 2018. Juana Luz Tobar Ortega entered sanctuary in Greensboro one month before Chicas took refuge in the School for Conversion. And Eliseo Jiminez has been in sanctuary at Umstead Park United Methodist Church in Raleigh since October 2017.
In June 2017, immigration officials issued Chicas a deportation order instructing him to board a one-way flight to his native El Salvador, leaving behind his wife and four children. Instead, he took sanctuary in this two-bedroom parsonage, which also houses a tiny library named for the legendary civil rights activist Ann Atwater. He hasn’t ventured off the property since.
The stress of living in isolation for two years—his wife visits almost nightly, but he lives alone—has taken its toll on Chicas’s health. His sciatica has gotten worse. A doctor comes regularly to monitor his elevated blood sugar.
Before entering sanctuary, Chicas lived in the U.S. for more than thirty-two years. As a seventeen-year-old, he was a soldier with the Salvadoran military, which was backed by the U.S. during the Reagan and Carter administrations during a long and devastating civil war against communist rebels. On February 6, 1985, Chicas fled on foot in search of political asylum in the United States.
He walked for more than a week, eventually crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on Valentine’s Day, when he was apprehended by immigration officials. He was released after paying a fine, but he failed to show up for his court date, a miscue he blames on bad legal advice.
An immigration court issued a deportation order in his absence. Chicas says he wasn’t aware of that order until two years ago.
Chicas and his wife, Sandra Marquina, met in 1992. Her brother, Chicas’s best friend, introduced them. They married in 1997 and settled into a home on a quiet Raleigh street and started a life together. She found a housekeeping job at N.C. State, where she’s worked for eighteen years, and her husband worked as a church custodian.
In the 1990s, Chicas struggled with alcoholism and was arrested for driving under the influence and domestic abuse, though the family says he wasn’t convicted. But he got sober and converted to Christianity in 2002. He reconciled with his wife. His religious faith grew, and he was ordained as an evangelical pastor at Iglesia Evangelica in Raleigh.
His asylum application was denied in 2008, but Chicas was able to stay in the U.S. through stays of removal and work permits. He received a social security number and driver’s license, and he paid taxes. He visited the Charlotte ICE office for routine check-ins. During the Obama administration, Chicas still lived under a deportation order, but ICE never acted on it. But then, a few months into Trump’s presidency, when he went to check in with ICE, he was told his time had run out.
“I pray to God to help me continue this process. I don’t feel like I have freedom. I feel like this is jail. I feel like I’m in prison.”
Three of his children are U.S. citizens, and the fourth is a Dreamer. His situation is affecting them, too, he says. His thirteen-year-old son, Ezequiel, is seeing a therapist, and his grades have slipped. Chicas’s twenty-year-old daughter, meanwhile, is suffering a “bad depression,” he says.
Marquina says she gave immigration officials documents showing them her daughter’s deteriorating mental condition.
“They don’t care,” she says. “They said, ‘When we deport your husband, she can go with him.’ And she was born here.”
In the beginning, Chicas, a stocky, quiet man, thought he’d be in sanctuary for three, maybe four months.
Now, he struggles to maintain hope.
“I have faith in God,” he says. “I pray to God to help me continue this process. I don’t feel like I have freedom. I feel like this is jail. I feel like I’m in prison.”
During his first year in sanctuary, Chicas met twice with U.S. Representative David Price and once with Senator Bernie Sanders—whose campaign released a video of that visit, though Marquina says she hasn’t been able to get in touch with his team since—as well as with former NC NAACP president and Moral Monday leader, the Reverend William J. Barber II. In June 2018, the Durham City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting Chicas and the sanctuary movement. His wife sought help from Governor Cooper and contacted the office of Republican senator Thom Tillis.
As frustrating as dealing with bureaucracy and seemingly indifferent elected officials can be, Marquina is no less frustrated by the very people she thought would have their back: the church community.
With a few exceptions, her husband’s fight isn’t one they’re willing to take up, she says. In fact, most of the people who are helping them these days aren’t part of any religious organization, which she admits has given her pause.
“Me and my husband are Christians. Then we have this situation and look to other Christians for help,” she says. “But the Christians say they don’t want to help me because they support President Trump because it’s a Christian administration. Where is the mercy and compassion for us? Why don’t you have mercy for us? My husband and I only want to be together.”
If more churches rallied behind him, she thinks—hopes might be a better word—maybe the administration would listen.
At the very least, maybe they wouldn’t feel forgotten.
Inside the religious center, Chicas wakes up each day at 4:00 a.m. to pray, read his Bible, and listen to music. He works outside in the yard. Once a week, he takes English classes and guitar lessons.
“Sometimes I sleep too much,” he admits. “Depression.”
Sometimes he wants to go back to El Salvador, a country he hasn’t known in three decades. But his family is here. His life is here.
“My hope is, I wish someone will help me,” he says. “And give me some relief.”
Correction: Our original story omitted Eliseo Jiminez in our count of those still in sanctuary in North Carolina.
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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