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Shelter in place? She’s been doing that inside a Colorado church for more than three years

Rosa Sabido has spent more than three years in the Mancos United Methodist Church in Colorado to avoid deportation.
Rosa Sabido has spent more than three years in the Mancos United Methodist Church in Colorado to avoid deportation back to Mexico.
(David Kelly / For The Times)

Facing deportation to Mexico, Rosa Sabido took sanctuary on June 2, 2017, inside the Mancos United Methodist Church in this deeply conservative corner of Colorado.

Supporters held vigils after her first 100 days, then the first 600 days, then the first 1,000.

Still, she remains. Marooned.

In the more than three years Sabido has spent in the church, her mother has died, along with five elderly dogs she left with a stepfather. Two food trucks she once operated sit idle behind her empty mobile home in nearby Cortez.

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She spends her days writing poetry, working on her case and walking the dark halls and green lawn of the church, careful never to step onto the sidewalk.

“I think we are all surprised that she’s been here over three years,” said the church pastor, Craig Paschal. “Hopefully, it won’t all be for naught.”

About 45 people across the country sought refuge in churches shortly after President Trump took office and lowered the bar for who would be targeted for deportation.

The Obama administration focused on deporting those with criminal records, but Trump made it clear that any immigrant in the country illegally was vulnerable, even those with strong community ties and no criminal past, such as Sabido.

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Some who sought sanctuary had overstayed visas or lost asylum cases. A few had run-ins with the law, such as driving without a license, using false documents or, in one case, being charged and later acquitted of assault after a shoving match at work.

Most who went into sanctuary remain there, including a Peruvian immigrant who gave birth in a church recreation room in Boulder, Colo., last year. A few have walked away, some have won temporary stays of deportation, and others have returned to their countries.

Sabido, who grew up in Mexico City, was 23 when she entered the U.S. in 1987 on a visitor visa to see her mother, Blanca, and stepfather Roberto, legal residents living in Cortez, about 17 miles west of Mancos.

Her mother filed a petition for Sabido to become a permanent resident, a process that takes years. In the meantime, Sabido traveled between the U.S. and Mexico on a visitor visa.

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In 1998, during questioning by immigration officers at the Phoenix airport, she admitted to working as a babysitter in the U.S. and was sent back to Mexico.

A month later, she crept through a narrow tunnel into Nogales, Ariz., and made her way to Cortez, where she sold food, prepared taxes and worked as a secretary at St. Margaret Mary Church.

She was eventually arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and repeatedly applied for stays of removal — which she was granted six years in a row. Her seventh request was denied, and in 2017 she was ordered to leave the country.

The small adobe church offered sanctuary. It was no guarantee against deportation, but the federal government rarely raided houses of worship.

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Sabido, single with no children, scrambled to pack. She bid a tearful farewell to her dogs. Her distraught mother told her she’d be better off in Mexico than a prisoner in a church.

But Mexico wasn’t home anymore. She’d spent more than three decades in the U.S. She spoke English fluently. And she had faith in the system.

When she entered the church, it was national news. Mancos, a rural town of about 1,400 in a county that heavily favored Trump in the 2016 election, seemed an unlikely sanctuary, making the story even more compelling.

“In the beginning people came every day — hour after hour — wanting to get to know me, to hear my story,” she recalled. “So I had to tell my story so many times for months and months. The media was here all the time. They wanted to watch everything I did. One asked me to crack open the bathroom door so he could film me brushing my teeth.”

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The church installed a shower for her and converted the nursery into a bedroom.

Sabido was soon inundated by supporters who included her in yoga, drum circles, singing, cooking sessions and crafting.

“You are surrounded by strangers, but you must build relationships because you depend on everyone for everything — food, clothing,” she said. “You don’t feel like you have any power at all.”

The first year, Sabido’s mother visited every day. Then Blanca was diagnosed with breast cancer and returned to Mexico for treatment to be closer to her extended family.

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She was 72 when she died July 23, 2018.

“I missed being with her on the last day of her life. That stays with me all the time,” Sabido said. “I wanted to take care of her and I couldn’t.”

Through it all, a small army of supporters has pressed her case. They asked local Congressman Scott Tipton, a Republican who represents the district, to sponsor a private bill to legalize Sabido’s status.

Private bills, often used when other remedies are exhausted, must still pass the House, Senate and be signed by the president. Tipton visited Sabido but refused to introduce a bill. He recently lost a primary to a candidate who claimed he was insufficiently pro-Trump.

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Tipton’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Colorado’s Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, also visited Sabido. But all he could offer was hope that Trump would lose in November and a new administration would take up her case.

Sabido still has strong support in Mancos and Cortez. When a local police officer walked into the church one day, parishioners feared the worst. He approached Sabido, handed her his card and said to call if she needed anything.

“Even people who are anti-immigrant say she should be allowed to stay,” said Katie Wall, owner of Zuma Natural Foods in Mancos.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has increased Sabido’s isolation but also given her time to reflect. She’s stopped all activities and most face-to-face interactions.

“I was never patient but have learned patience. I have learned to be with myself,” she said. “I can see all the colors, forms and textures of my life that you don’t see unless you are forced to.”

She has become an outspoken champion of immigration reform. Her story has spread nationally on social media and the website rosabelongshere.org.

Each week she takes part in a Zoom meeting with some of the roughly 40 others in sanctuary.

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On a recent call, six joined from churches around the country.

“For me it’s like prison, the only difference is we are not with other people,” said Juana Ortega, 48, of Guatemala, in sanctuary in North Carolina after being denied asylum.

“One of the biggest changes for me was developing diabetes and high blood pressure in sanctuary,” said Alirio Gamez, 44, of El Salvador, who took refuge in a Texas church when his asylum request was rejected. “The doctor said it could have been from the stress and worry of this situation.”

“I don’t know if I can go on much longer,” said Alex Garcia, 39, of Honduras, who has been in sanctuary for three years in Missouri to avoid deportation for being in the country illegally. “If Trump wins I don’t think we have any hope.”

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Sabido spends much of her time on the church’s back lawn, where a bamboo screen offers her privacy from the street.

“I worry about wearing out my welcome,” she said quietly.

Paschal said he can’t imagine asking her to leave. He works just down the hall from where she sleeps. Their bathrooms are inches apart. She shares the cramped kitchen with the whole church.

“Everyone has had to make sacrifices,” the pastor said. “The biggest thing is really learning to share the space. Learning to work together. We have a really active church and we kind of bump into each other.”

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If Trump wins reelection, Sabido, who is now 56, knows this much: “I won’t spend another four years in sanctuary.”

She can walk out of the church and disappear into the shadows or return to Mexico with nothing.

If she could freely leave today, she said, she’d go into the woods, sit by the river and listen to the wind.

“Then I would have to face the painful truth of how things have changed,” she said. “What I have lost.”

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Tears welled up.

“Everything is gone.”

Kelly is a special correspondent.


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