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Their hopes dashed by a Texas judge, immigrants living in churches wait for a reprieve

Now that a Texas judge has barred part of President Biden's deportation moratorium, immigrants living in church sanctuary are searching for solutions. Thirty lawmakers want to help.

Journalists and well-wishers in the church sanctuary movement surround Jose Chicas as he leaves sanctuary after three years and seven months on Jan. 22, 2021, in Raleigh, North Carolina. His wife, Sandra, drove him back to their home in Raleigh. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

(RNS) — Francisca Lino, a mother of six who had been taking sanctuary in a Chicago church for nearly four years, went home earlier this week to reunite with her family after President Biden issued an executive order suspending deportations.

She didn’t stay long.

On Tuesday, the Mexico native returned to Adalberto United Methodist Church in Humbolt Park after a Texas judge barred the U.S. government from enforcing a 100-day deportation moratorium, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Lino’s turnabout is being closely watched by the nation’s three-dozen sanctuary dwellers, many of whom are anxious to resume their lives after taking shelter in religious buildings for years as a result of former President Trump’s aggressive efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.

Churches — along with schools and hospitals — are considered “sensitive locations” where federal immigration enforcement officers are unlikely to arrest, search or interview people under most circumstances.

Last Wednesday (Jan. 20), as part of a flurry of executive orders, Biden ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to pause most deportations for 100 days — with the exception of those suspected of terrorism, espionage or otherwise posing a danger to national security.

Two days later, Jose Chicas, an El Salvador native, left the house owned by St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church and the School for Conversion in Durham, North Carolina. where he had taken sanctuary for three years and seven months. 

“I’m so happy,” said Chicas, who drove home to Raleigh with his wife and son. He has lived and worked in the United States for 35 years.

Jose Chicas, who has been confined to church sanctuary for more than three years, talks to reporters at a farewell gathering in his honor, Friday Jan. 22, 2021, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, right, runs the School for Conversion located in the house where Chicas lived in sancuary. Chicas' son, Ezequiel, left, listens before the family returned to their Raleigh home. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Jose Chicas, who has been confined to a church sanctuary for more than three years, talks to reporters at a farewell gathering in his honor, Friday Jan. 22, 2021, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, right, runs the School for Conversion located in the house where Chicas lived in sanctuary. Chicas’ son, Ezequiel, left, listens before the family returned to their Raleigh home. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron


READ: With new executive order, this immigrant is leaving church sanctuary after 3.5 years


The following day, Lino left the Chicago United Methodist Church where she had been living.

Then on Tuesday, Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee, imposed a 14-day restraining order on the deportation pause. In his order, he said Texas had “persuasively demonstrated a substantial risk of irreparable harm in part because of the potential increased flow of illegal aliens from other states.”

“I am disillusioned and sad,” Lino told a reporter in Spanish after returning to sanctuary. (Chicas remains at his Raleigh home and has been advised by his lawyer not to comment publicly for now.)

But now several members of Congress are asking Biden to take steps to help those in sanctuary.

On Tuesday (Jan. 26), 30 members of Congress — all Democrats — sent a letter to Biden asking him to take three steps to help those in sanctuary: push ICE to grant them stays of removal, lift their deportation orders during his first 100 days, and sign private bills passed by Congress on their behalf.

“While the Biden administration is working to reverse the Trump administration’s cruel, immoral policies towards immigrants, my colleagues and I have called on the new administration to include protections for sanctuary families currently living in houses of worship in Massachusetts and across the United States,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of 30 legislators who signed the letter. (In her presidential campaign, Warren visited a man living in sanctuary at a Raleigh church.)

The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas who has already introduced a bill to the House of Representatives that would rescind a deportation order and help grant legal status to a woman who has been living in a Presbyterian church in Texas.

“For generations, faith communities have not only been houses of worship, but places of refuge where people of every background can come together in good and difficult times,” Castro told RNS. He said his own Catholic faith informs his support for the movement.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, talks with attendees at an Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign event, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Denison, Iowa. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, talks with attendees at an Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign event, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Denison, Iowa. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Both Warren and Castro say they haven’t heard back from the Biden administration yet. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This spring, many of those who have taken sanctuary in a house of worship will mark four years of self-imposed confinement to avoid the immediate risk of deportation.

Under Trump, nearly all were issued “orders for removal” as part of a policy to deport up to 10 million undocumented residents. Many had been living and working in the United States for decades and have U.S.-born children.

Congregations across the country took them in, outfitting buildings with living quarters and showers and training volunteers in how to respond should Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers come knocking on the door.

The New Sanctuary movement, as it is known, was intended as a temporary stop-gap measure. Many of those who fled to church sanctuary never imagined they’d have to wait out Trump’s term.

Now, with Congress and the executive branch controlled by Democrats, many sanctuary residents and their allies are pushing for a permanent solution.

“Almost everybody in sanctuary has a removal order,” said Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, which has tracked sanctuary cases. “That’s the problem. If you have a removal order, you are not protected from deportation.”

Most of those taking sanctuary are now being advised by their lawyers to request a so-called “stay of removal,” with their name on it.

Biden is expected to issue new guidelines outlining his immigration enforcement priorities, next week. But even with his initial executive order, many immigration lawyers say there’s no reason why ICE can’t start issuing stays of removal to undocumented residents who have not committed violent or other serious crimes.

A stay of removal, however, is not a path toward permanent residency. It does not reopen a person’s deportation case. That’s why the letter signed by lawmakers urges Biden to sign private bills passed by Congress on their behalf. A private bill is a piece of legislation affecting a single person that would grant that person permanent residency, or a green card.

“The excuse we heard under Trump was it won’t do any good to introduce a private bill because Trump will never sign it,” said David Bennion, a Philadelphia lawyer with the Free Migration Project who is also representing a number of people in sanctuary. “Well, now that excuse isn’t valid.”

The letter sent to Biden by the legislators presses the point: “Those in sanctuary have suffered enough,” the letter said. “Now is the time to support and honor the brave fight and leadership of people living in sanctuary and their commitment to resist the retaliatory actions of the Trump administration.”