Jose Robles apologizes for his messy room, saying his wife usually helps him keep it clean.
The windowless lilac-colored room is spacious — approximately 40 square feet — and includes a sofa bed, computer, table and a bunk bed in the corner. Despite the clothes strewn around the room and leftover takeout on plates, the room had a pleasant, fruity smell.
For the past five-and-a-half weeks, Robles, 43, has been confined to Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle, where he sought sanctuary in late June to avoid deportation to his native Mexico. It’s here that he awaits word on his other two options: Approval of a U-Visa, which is given to certain undocumented immigrants who are victims of a crime, or a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to reopen his case.
Having worked for 18 years as a painter, Robles says he gets anxious about his current situation.
“I miss the routine,” he said in Spanish. “There’s nothing to do here except wait.”
He tells himself it’s better than going back to Michoacan, Mexico, one of five Mexican states the U.S. Department of State warns travelers to avoid due to crime.
Outside his room, Robles can walk up a staircase to a bathroom. Downstairs is where he goes to eat and shower. There’s another room down the hall where he watches television. His only access to the outside is a small, gated courtyard that faces Ninth Avenue, where he goes to relax, smoke a cigarette or exercise.
He said he misses the weekends the most, when he would spend time with his family at social gatherings. Now he feels like a caged lion, pacing back and forth between the courtyard and his room, he said.
Sandy Restrepo, Robles’ lawyer, believes he’s the only person in Washington state avoiding deportation by finding sanctuary in a church. Restrepo is the co-founder of Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, an organization that provides legal services to undocumented immigrants.
Robles was referred to Gethsemane Lutheran Church by The Church Council of Greater Seattle, which is connected to more than 300 religious congregations. His family keeps him fed by bringing in food from the outside.
The modern sanctuary movement began in the 1980s, when religious leaders were housing Central Americans fleeing conflict and seeking refuge in the U.S. According to Church World Service, which keeps track of people in sanctuary, there were 37 people in the U.S. living in churches in 2017 to avoid being deported and only nine were able to leave sanctuary with “some sort of reprieve.”
Churches are considered “sensitive locations” by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). This means that unless authorized by a judge, ICE generally won’t try to detain Robles while he’s inside the church.
Had he remained at home, Restrepo said, Robles could put his whole family at risk of being detained by ICE. Of his three daughters, only his youngest, Natalie, 9, is a U.S. citizen.
Under his deportation order, Robles was scheduled to fly back to Mexico on June 28. Instead, he drove to Gethsemane. Restrepo insists he didn’t do anything wrong; in fact, he continues to wear his ankle monitor that lets ICE know his location at all times.
She said Robles could eventually leave the church if one of two options unfolds, but each could take months.
Robles will stay at Gethsemane until the city of Lakewood confirms to ICE that he was cooperative with investigators after he was assaulted earlier this year, making him eligible for a U-Visa as a victim of a crime. Alternatively, the BIA could approve his lawyer’s motion to reopen his case and evaluate whether deporting him would seriously affect his youngest daughter.
Lakewood city spokeswoman Brynn Grimley said Monday that state law bars officials from commenting on Robles’ case. She did say prosecutors generally evaluate requests by looking at a person’s prior interactions with police, criminal record and how likely they are to help with the prosecution.
She added that they look at all cases regardless of how many times they’ve been submitted, but she said “you can’t change your past.”
“In some cases they’re not signed because a person’s information doesn’t add up,” Grimley said.
If Lakewood refuses to reconsider certifying the U-Visa, and the motion is rejected by the BIA, Restrepo said Robles and his family would have to discuss complying with the deportation order.
“He definitely doesn’t want to be here detained forever,” said Restrepo.
Robles’ wife and Natalie now stay with him at the church, but are free to leave whenever they want. His other two daughters are staying at the family’s Lakewood house.
Robles hasn’t been able to work since he moved into the church. His oldest daughter just got a job and he said his family is figuring out how they’re going to make ends meet.
Recently, he’s been watching workers paint a building across the street from the church courtyard.
“I’d like to open the door and paint with them and start working,” he said.
He jokes that he keeps an eye on them in case they do a bad job, so he can come back later and offer to repaint the building.
Robles’ sense of humor has given him a warm rapport with the Rev. Joanne Engquist, pastor at Gethsemane, who said church members are doing everything they can to help make him comfortable.
Engquist said $2,200 had been raised in the past five weeks to help Robles cover family expenses while he’s in sanctuary. Some of the support has also been in the form of services: a barber giving Robles a haircut; people throwing Natalie a birthday party late last month.
“We don’t just talk about the fear … we can just be people, too,” she said.
Still, Engquist knows the circumstances of sanctuary aren’t ideal. After spending the first couple of nights at the church when Robles first arrived, she was relieved to finally go home, but acutely aware that he couldn’t say the same.
Engquist is trying to arrange for a doctor to see Robles because he said he gets severe headaches two to three times a week. Robles said he also suffers from back pain after being assaulted in April, so a chiropractor visits him twice a week and a social worker visits to evaluate his mental health.
A psychologist visits Robles’ daughter Natalie weekly at the church.
“I worry how she will cope with being separated from me once she starts school again this fall,” he said.
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