It’s been nearly a year since Rosa Sabido packed up nearly three decades of her life, hugged her ailing mother goodbye, and moved into the sanctuary of a Colorado church and into a life of uncertainty.
On the rare occasion the 54-year-old dares to think about a future beyond the walls of Mancos United Methodist Church where she’s lived since June 2, she envisions herself back in her own little blue house in nearby Cortez, Colorado, next door to her parents, caring for them and her beloved pets.
When it’s all over, she said, “I’d like to go back home and be a normal person and be free, take care of my parents and be with my dogs, so they know I didn’t abandon them.” Her voice breaks. “That’s really the extent of the future I can dream of. Sometimes I don’t feel I can dream for a future at all. I feel I’m not allowed to plan.”
Lately, however, Sabido has been finding new reason to hope. She and three other women, mothers who have also taken sanctuary in churches across Colorado, are working on a statewide resolution, a people’s resolution, to address the specific gaps in immigration law that led each to where she is now.
With help from their sanctuary coalitions, the four hope to collect endorsements from 10,000 Coloradans; local and state elected officials, including the governor; and faith and business leaders. They plan to deliver the signatures to the nine-member Colorado congressional delegation.
While they may not be able to move the needle on an issue Congress has failed to fix, there’s opportunity for the lawmakers—including four Democrats and five Republicans—to lead. Colorado is home to a number of immigrant advocacy groups with a strong history of fighting for immigrant rights. Like many of its biggest cities, it is a sanctuary state and one of only a few states where those without legal documents can still obtain driver’s licenses.
Jennifer Piper, the interfaith organizing director with American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrants Rights Program in Denver, brought the four women and their coalitions together. “I think there’s a lot they can do if they are truly representing a state that is a leader in the country on immigration policy, that allows and encourages immigrants to be part of the fabric of our communities and to be able to contribute as much as possible.”
Their people’s resolution doesn’t call for “comprehensive immigration reform”—the catch-all phrase for a national measure Piper believes has lost all meaning over the years. Rather it targets mid-1990s changes to immigration law that made them more restrictive and punitive for millions of immigrants, including some now in sanctuary.
“This is a movement that is growing and that needs the government’s attention … not councils, not churches.”
“There are concrete, specific things that Congress can do,” Piper said. “We want to use our stories to show what that means.”
Only Coloradans can sign the resolution, either online or in person, but they won’t be able to do so until they agree to take action on some level—whether lobbying local officials or getting others on board. Said Sabido, “This is a movement that is growing and that needs the government’s attention … not councils, not churches. If we make this happen, other states will do the same. It’s also a way to educate people so they’ll understand and endorse it.”
When she first moved into a converted classroom within the church’s fellowship hall last June, Sabido never imagined she’d be staying as long as she has. And, frankly, neither did anyone else. Her attorney had said a few weeks at most. Just in case, she packed for winter, as well.
She had first come to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa in 1987, along with her mother, to visit her stepfather in Colorado. Over the next 10 years she traveled back and forth, increasingly spending more time on the U.S. side. In 1998, while returning to Colorado, she was interrogated by immigration authorities about her visits, stripped of her visa, and returned to Mexico.
In light of the life she had started to build in Colorado, Sabido eventually snuck across the border and back into the U.S. Her mother, who had gained legal residency through her marriage and was permanently living in Colorado, filed a green card petition for Sabido in 2001. But even though the petition was approved, the limited number of available visas for people in her family relationship category meant there wouldn’t be one available to her for a very long time.
In 2002, following a failed attempt to correct her status, Sabido was ordered to leave the country. She never did, becoming a fugitive. She continued to build her life in Cortez, holding down several jobs to support herself and help her aging parents. A Catholic, she worked for eight years as secretary at a parish office in Cortez. She’s famous for the homemade tamales that she sells around town.
In 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided her home and later put her under supervision, with the understanding that she’d report to them each year. And she did, and each year she was granted a stay of removal—until last year, when she was notified there would be no more.
Around 40 people are known to be under sanctuary protection in churches across the country.
Sabido vacillated between sanctuary and reporting to ICE anyway, knowing she stood a chance of being detained and eventually deported. She had five days to decide, to pack up 28 years of her life and plan for a length of stay she couldn’t anticipate. “My church office—I had been there eight years; it was filled with all my stuff. … I had to pack it all up, talk to my friends. Oh gosh.”
She’d passed the little church on her tamale route many times. Now, she said, “it was a place where I could stay and resist.”
While the number fluctuates from week to week, around 40 people are known to be under sanctuary protection in churches across the country. Only one has been in protection longer than Sabido.
For most of them, sanctuary is the end of the road. “In many cases, immigration is not going to grant a stay and there aren’t any more court remedies,” Piper said. There’s also an understanding that immigration agents, at least for now, won’t enter a church to remove those seeking protection there.
Each week those in sanctuary “get together” via video conferencing as a way to get to know one another. The Colorado Four and their coalitions had begun talking via Skype about their individual cases and what solution there might be for them.
Trump aside, they recognized that Congress held the power to change immigration laws. The question they faced, Piper said, was this: “How to show the Colorado congressional delegation that people are interested in solutions and committed to taking action?”
“We sat down and started writing,” Piper said. They talked about what in the law kept each of them from being able to adjust their status. “Even with this group, just a handful of tweaks [in the law] could open the path for—not just them—but potentially millions of people.”
“At night I feel like I have to download my brain; I cannot think.”
Part of the goal of their People’s Resolution is to help educate people around an issue many so often get wrong. Like most undocumented immigrants, the women repeatedly field questions about why they hadn’t just gotten legal status before “it came to this,” as if there’s a form they could simply fill out to make that happen.
“The hope is that public pressure will help bring more attention and potential shift in their cases,” Piper said. “They are committed and aware that this will probably be a long-term strategy.”
The resolution appeals to the delegation to lead the way in repealing aspects of immigration law and creating a path for those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status. It also includes specific language seeking to raise awareness among state lawmakers about how state law impacts federal agents’ authority to pick people up.
“If lobbyists for detention can sit down and write legislation and propose it to Congress, we should be able to write legislation, too,” Piper said. At the very least, she said, “we felt we could plant a seed and see if it grows.”
And their idea just might be taking root. While the petition is restricted to Colorado residents, Piper said, the idea is catching on elsewhere. “We are starting to see interest from neighboring states and … national and human rights groups,” she said.
Although Sabido is unable to venture beyond even the sidewalk outside Mancos United, her days are filled with endless activity, much of it orchestrated by members of the community. She ticks them off like a well-rehearsed script.
Some are things she’s always wanted to do, she said, while others are things she “didn’t sign up for. It’s about being available. They want to make sure I’m not lonely or bored.”
There’s yoga classes two days a week; weight-lifting four days a week. There are sessions for jewelry and stain-glass making and sewing and basket weaving and gardening. Wednesday evenings is a meditation group and Thursday is a second meditation group. On Tuesdays there’s a meeting of the youth group she helped to set up. The best days are the days she teaches local people how to cook her famous tamales.
“At night I feel like I have to download my brain; I cannot think,” she said. “It’s a big commitment.” Unmarried and without children, she was someone who valued her alone time. “I’m a simple person, with simple needs, and a big problem.”
In addition to the resolution, her supporters have asked Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton to file a private bill on her behalf. Such legislation is exactly what it sounds like, intended just for her with the aim of getting her on a legal path. But it’s a rarely used tool. And in this political environment, a longshot. But Tipton, her supporters say, has also not said no.
Sabido said returning to Mexico is always an option. “I know I wouldn’t starve,” she said. But it’s not one she wants to consider just yet. She had a lot of unfinished business here, she said. “I want to fight to stay. After 30 years, I think there’s a reason I’m still here.”
Lornet Turnbull is the former civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.