A small piece of paper hangs above a bed in the pastor’s office at the Mancos United Methodist Church.
It’s a sign-up sheet with the names of local residents committed to watching over Rosa Sabido, a Mexican national who has found sanctuary from deportation in the Colorado church. The residents sleep in the church office, while Sabido rests in a separate room normally used as a children’s nursery.
“We are here in case someone should show up at night or just to comfort her,” Joanie Trussel, a local resident whose name was on the list of volunteers, said recently. “We don’t want her to be alone.”
For the last 30 years, Sabido has lived in the U.S. on visitor visas or by receiving stays of deportation, but she was denied a stay in May and became eligible for immediate deportation.
She is the latest in a series of immigrants whom the government suspects of entering the country illegally or overstaying their visas to seek refuge in a church to avoid deportation. Many others have found sanctuary in big cities like Denver, Phoenix and Chicago.
Mancos, a town of about 1,300 in rural southwest Colorado, is an island of diversity in a largely Republican sea with the motto “Where the West Still Lives.” It’s an eclectic place of cattle drives, art galleries, cafes and coffee roasters.
“People think independently here,” said Silvia Fleitz, lay leader of the church. “You think they are one thing and they do something that totally surprises you.”
When faced with potential deportation, Sabido, 53, left her home in nearby Cortez and headed for Mancos to be among people she’s known for decades.
“In a small community we are not strangers,” said Craig Paschal, pastor of the church, which sits on a leafy street a few blocks from downtown. “There is a level of intimacy you don’t get in a bigger city.”
After Sabido received sanctuary June 2, the whole town swung into action.
“In a place like Mancos, things become personal very fast,” said Travis Custer, 30, a local resident who has rallied support for Sabido. “We immediately formed a committee of 10 to 12 people and began discussing ways to get this story out, to show people how broken this immigration system is.”
Unlike some sanctuary seekers who have had brushes with the law, Sabido might seem an unlikely target for deportation. According to her lawyer, Jennifer Kain-Rios, she has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, has no criminal record and has worked as a church secretary and tax preparer at H&R Block.
Her step-father is a naturalized American citizen and her mother is a legal resident living in Cortez. Sabido, who is single with no children, applied for permanent residency in 2001, and her case is still pending.
“I have lived 30 years here, worked hard and been a good citizen,” she said. “I will fight this to the end.”
Her lawyer compiled a four page summary of Sabido’s complex journey through the immigration process. She often traveled between the U.S. and Mexico on visitor visas. Then she was stopped at the airport in Phoenix in 1998, questioned about whether she was working and deported back home to Mexico City.
She reentered the U.S. on foot, a trip so harrowing she vowed never to do it again. In 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Sabido then released her on the condition she report to an ICE office on a regular basis.
Sabido won six one-year stays of removal, before her last request was denied in May.
“Pursuing repeated stays is not a viable means for an alien to permanently postpone their required return to their country of origin,” ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said in a prepared statement. “Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly has made it clear that ICE will no longer exempt any class of individuals from removal proceedings if they are found to be in the country illegally.”
ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan told reporters last week that the final order of a federal judge needs to mean something “or this whole system has no integrity.”
After her request was denied, Sabido approached the Mancos United Methodist Church. It had voted a few months earlier to become a sanctuary church; the roughly 60-member congregation was eager to put its faith into action.
Many already knew Sabido. She lived in Cortez but shopped in the local grocery store, worked at the Catholic Church and sold tamales every week at the farmers market.
“Rosa is one of us; she is our sister,” Paschal said.
As for the ICE director’s comment about the law needing to mean something, Paschal called that a “cop out.”
“Slavery was a law, segregation was a law,” he said. “We have to challenge a law when it’s unfair.”
The church immediately took Sabido in.
She moved into the children’s nursery, where a painting of Noah’s ark adorns the bright blue walls. A church member installed a shower.
A man recently walked past and shook his keys at her, saying his car was nearby in case she “needed to make a fast getaway.”
“I think he may have been drinking,” Sabido said.
The other night, gospel singers performed for Sabido in the church’s Fellowship Hall. She’s taking piano lessons and yoga classes. And people routinely drop by to keep her company.
It might all seem pleasant if it weren’t so grim.
Sabido’s experience has made a strong impression on some residents.
“We knew immigration was stepping up its aggressive tactics, but we didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” said Custer. “Rosa is now on year 30 and has voluntarily reported to immigration every year. How can you be illegal if you are working through their own system?”
Betsy Harrison, 75, a local sheep farmer, said the overall tenor of political debate in the country has “really gotten to me.”
“I’m grateful for Rosa and the opportunities she has provided us,” she said. “She has been a catalyst for good.”
Sabido’s attorney is applying for another stay of removal. Two former sanctuary seekers in Denver, Jeanette Vizguerra and Arturo Hernandez Garcia, eventually won temporary reprieves from ICE in May, allowing them to leave the First Unitarian Church where they had taken refuge.
But for now, Sabido wanders the halls and grounds of her shrunken world surrounded by friends, yet increasingly frustrated.
“I just want to get out of this cage I have been in for the past 30 years,” she said.
Kelly is a special correspondent.