It Took a Tucson Church and 10,000 Arizonans to Stop the Deportation of Rosa Robles Loreto

Rosa Robles Loreto
Rosa Robles Loreto
Jim Louvau

Rosa Robles Loreto packed one pair of pajamas, one pair of shoes, two pairs of pants, and four blouses into a small, black suitcase. She could do without her hair dryer and the bulky pot of face cream she usually slathered on before bed, she decided as she eyed the already overstuffed bag. No need for a sweater. It was August, and the temperature in Tucson was hovering around 100 degrees.

Bidding farewell to her two sons, 8-year-old Jose Emiliano and 11-year-old Gerardo Jr., wasn't particularly emotional. Rosa just kissed their cheeks and rattled off a motherly list of reminders: Obey your father, take regular baths, brush your teeth, wear clean clothes, don't be late to school, do your homework.

She'd be gone only a week, she told them — a month at the most.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had ordered Rosa deported to her native Mexico. She refused to go quietly. Instead, in an effort to pressure the agency to reconsider, she rolled her suitcase through the rickety wooden gates of Southside Presbyterian Church in 2014 and claimed sanctuary.

Rosa's lawyer, Margo Cowan, already had achieved a number of victories using the tactic. Although no law bars ICE from sending squads of masked M-16-wielding agents into chapels to drag off immigrants, as Cowan pointed out, "Doing that would be a public relations nightmare." ICE halted one man's deportation after he'd spent 28 days living at Southside, giving periodic press conferences. Several immigrants didn't even make it to the church before the government backed down.

"All it took was a whisper of the word 'sanctuary,'" Cowan said.

But for Rosa, things didn't work out so simply. More than a year later, her husband still was raising the kids on his own, and she had decorated the tiny back room where she lived at Southside with knickknacks and framed photos.

Her story highlights troubling inconsistencies in the application of immigration policies instituted under President Obama.

While the administration deported undocumented immigrants at record rates, Obama ordered law enforcement officials to focus resources on deporting those with felony rap sheets. Through new protocols and programs, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants temporary work permits to immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, he attempted to give a break to immigrants with strong family and community ties, like Rosa.

But because the policies rely on the discretion of prosecutors and judges who don't all agree with Obama's approach, there is no rhyme or reason to who gets relief and who doesn't. Immigrants with no strikes against them frequently are deported, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. At the same time, some immigrants with criminal backgrounds are allowed to stay.

"It's chaos," Cowan said. "We've got a very harsh statutory scheme that's not working. We've got a president who's trying to give immigrants some options. But then we've still got traffic cops turning them in to Border Patrol and lawyers telling them, 'We can't help you.'"

Rosa Robles Loreto in her room at Southside Presbyterian Church.
Rosa Robles Loreto in her room at Southside Presbyterian Church.
Jim Louvau

Rosa was born in a small mountain village in the Mexican state of Sonora, where few, including her mother and father, attended school past fourth grade and where many got married by age 16.

When she was 2 months old, her parents, struggling to feed her and her two older siblings, moved to Hermosillo, Sonora's humming capital, to find work. Her father secured a small patch of land through a government anti-poverty program and built a shack out of cardboard. Working 12-hour construction shifts, he slowly saved money and, bit by bit, converted the makeshift abode into a cozy three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. By the time it was finished, Rosa had three more siblings.

Beginning at age 9, the children worked in the morning and went to school in the evening. Rosa's brothers joined her father in the construction business, and she and her sisters were hired at a spice factory across the street from their home. With tiny, nimble fingers, they measured ground cinnamon and chili powder into plastic bags, sealed the packages, and stapled on brightly colored labels.

Rosa met her husband, Gerardo, when the bus that took her to and from high school broke down. He offered her a ride home in his pickup truck. They talked every day until graduation, every day through college (where Rosa majored in accounting), and every day for six years post-study, until they realized they didn't ever want to stop.

Rosa always had dreamed of a fancy wedding, with a fluffy tulle dress, a tiara in her hair, a hired band, and beans and barbacoa for 600 guests — but money was tight.

To save up, they would spend their vacations with Gerardo's aunt in Tucson, just a five-hour drive over the border. In just one week tending children and cleaning houses in the United States, Rosa could earn the same wages she made in a month working at a bank in Mexico.

Each time the couple visited, using visas to make the cross, Gerardo's aunt would ask, "Why don't you just stay?" In 1999, they did.

They trawled yard sales to furnish a studio apartment. After a while, they welcomed Gerardo Jr. and Jose Emiliano to the family. They worked long hours but found time in the evenings to shuttle their boys to Little League practices. Gerardo coached. Rosa made snacks for the young athletes and cheered exuberantly from the stands.

At first, while scrubbing toilets, Rosa daydreamed about the banking career she'd left in Mexico, where she'd donned lipstick and a suit and felt intellectually stimulated. Eventually, though, she stopped thinking of her decision to immigrate as a sacrifice.

"This is a gift I am giving my children," she said. "They will have a better life here."

Rosa, with Alison Harrington, whose church took her in.
Rosa, with Alison Harrington, whose church took her in.
Jim Louvau

As Rosa's family settled in, Arizona's intolerance for undocumented immigrants intensified. In 2004, voters passed a ballot initiative requiring state and local officials to verify immigration status before administering public benefits. Those who failed the test were reported to the federal government.

In 2007, the Arizona Legislature imposed heavy sanctions on employers who hired people like Rosa and Gerardo. Then, in 2010, former Governor Jan Brewer signed into law the contentious Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, better known as Senate Bill 1070. The act made it a crime to be in Arizona without proper paperwork and charged police with checking immigration status during all lawful stops, detentions, and arrests.

In Tucson, which then had one of the country's highest detention rates, it already was common for police to turn over undocumented immigrants to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, according to local lawyers. But the legislative debate fueled law enforcement's enthusiasm. So, even though the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union immediately raised questions about SB 1070's constitutionality in court, Rosa and Gerardo started limiting trips outside the house and drove only when absolutely necessary.

At 6 a.m. on September 2, 2010, Rosa paused in a construction zone on her way to a housecleaning appointment. As she tried to discern which way the orange cones were directing her, she spotted red and blue police lights in her rearview mirror. Her thoughts lurched immediately to her children. What if she was deported? What would they do without her?

Rosa hadn't done anything wrong, but the officer asked for her identification anyway. She supplied her Mexican driver's license.

"Are you in the country illegally?" he asked.

She couldn't deny it. "Please!" she begged. "Please, give me a ticket! Please, don't call Border Patrol!"

Rosa spent 60 days in detention before a judge released her on a $3,000 bond. Gerardo, a sturdy man with an easy demeanor, was so worried that he often forgot to eat or brush his hair.

"Promise me they are treating you well," he pleaded during their nightly short phone calls. "Promise me you aren't being beaten."

She promised, determined to be strong for her family. But when she hung up the phone, she broke down sobbing.

Rosa and her family upon her release.
Rosa and her family upon her release.
Jim Louvau

Rosa met Margo Cowan at a December 2011 protest organized through the lawyer's nonprofit legal clinic, Keep Tucson Together. Rosa, whose case still was working its way through the courts, joined her and hundreds of others to march three miles from Santa Monica Church to ICE's Tucson field office waving homemade poster-board signs and chanting boisterously to halt deportations.

Cowan, a slight woman with a mop of gray curls, a friendly, crooked smile, and an affinity for tie-dye, was thrust into the immigration debate in the 1970s when, as a 23-year-old, she took over the operation of an anti-poverty clinic in Tucson's Barrio Hollywood.

"We helped people with whatever they needed," she said, which sometimes meant organizing recreation programs for children and sometimes meant helping undocumented immigrants get access healthcare or navigate the legal system.

She hadn't been at it long before Border Patrol raided the center and indicted her and several colleagues on 52 felony counts of transporting, aiding, and abetting illegal aliens. Cowan, who previously had coordinated strikes for the Farm Workers Union in California, quickly rallied the masses and persuaded President Carter's attorney general to drop the charges.

Inspired in part by the ordeal, she earned a law degree and now works full time as a Pima County public defender representing undocumented immigrants accused of serious crimes, such as murder and armed robbery.

In the months leading up to the march on ICE's offices, President Obama, cuffed by Congress in his attempts to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, quietly began working through back channels to "reduce the threat of removal for certain individuals present in the United States without authorization," according to a leaked Department of Homeland Security memo.

As a first step, in the summer of 2011, ICE Director John Morton issued a historic memorandum instructing agency employees to use discretion to determine when to prosecute immigrants and when to close their cases, or, in effect, look the other way. Morton specifically called on ICE attorneys and employees to refrain from pursuing those, like Rosa, with strong community ties and no criminal histories.

Nearly as soon as the memos were released, Cowan launched Keep Tucson Together to help immigrants prove to officials that they contributed positively to society and deserved to stay.

Many defense lawyers, however, ignored the administrative policy changes and continued to advise clients according to the letter of the law, she said. Some acted on principle, decrying the move as de facto amnesty achieved only because Obama bypassed the country's democratically elected leaders. But, for many, it was a matter of simple economics, Cowan said. Lawyers make more money taking their clients to court than requesting their cases be closed administratively.

"You fulfill your ethical obligations under the law, then you pick up more clients," she said. "It's a sound business model — but it doesn't keep families together."

If defense attorneys didn't push to close a case under Morton's guidelines, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the American Immigration Lawyer's Association, prosecutors were highly unlikely to make the suggestion on their own. In fact, many officials actively resisted the policy change, saying their jobs were "to arrest and deport."

The patterns persisted as Obama went on to issue executive orders granting temporary stays of deportation and work permits to certain undocumented immigrants, such as those who came to the United States illegally as children and those who gave birth to U.S. citizens, said Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the AILA.

"In the end, the decision whether to prosecute is made by the government official looking at the case so we're getting a really mixed bag of results," he said. "In some areas, there is a careful review of cases. In others, there's still a tendency to throw the book at everybody who comes in front a judge."

Rosa and Gerardo are textbook case studies illustrating uneven application.

Although Rosa clearly qualified for relief under the parameters of Obama's policies, her lawyer did not argue the issue, Cowan said. Instead, after a number of preliminary hearings stretched out over several years, Rosa's counsel marched her into court and asked the judge to allow her to depart the United States voluntarily.

Blindsided by her lawyer's move, Rosa penned a frantic appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals. She was given 60 days to leave the country.

In 2012, Gerardo also had been pulled over by a traffic cop, detained by Border Patrol, and thrown into deportation proceedings. He didn't hire a lawyer, however. He went to Keep Tucson Together, where clinic volunteers helped him argue that, as a taxpaying father of two, he shouldn't be a priority for deportation under the Obama administration's policies.

His case was closed.

Three days before Rosa's deadline to depart, she and Gerardo went to Cowan at her community action headquarters, a cheery, sky blue adobe house decorated with anti-SB 1070 and pro-Obama propaganda. In the front window, signs proclaimed: "We reject racism!" and "Human rights respected here!" A faded black doormat read: "Come back with a warrant."

"We got this letter," Gerardo told Cowan, sliding Rosa's final removal order across the attorney's desk. "We're not sure what to do."

Under the gaze of a 15-inch-tall Our Lady of Guadalupe statue, Cowan laid out the options:

1. Leave.

2. Hide. "Move to a different house," she said. "Move the kids to a different school. Keep moving and watching and praying that ICE doesn't send a dozen agents to grab you in the middle of the night."

3. Claim sanctuary at a church and apply for a stay of deportation.

After a night of tossing and turning, Rosa decided.

"I can't leave my kids," she told Cowan. "I can't hide. I'm not going to accept this."

Cowan called Southside's pastor, the Reverend Alison Harrington, who just a few months earlier had hosted another undocumented immigrant attempting to avoid deportation. "Are you ready to do this again?"

Harrington took the question to her congregation.

A small church of about 160 worshipers, Southside is a progressive community that not only offers weekly prayers for refugees fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria — and elsewhere — but also regularly sends jeeploads of volunteers into the desert to search for migrants who have lost their way or have been abandoned by their colleagues.

"We are Samaritans!" churchgoers call as they navigate saguaros and prickly pears, referencing a parable taught by Jesus Christ where a man rescues an enemy who has been beaten and left for dead. "We are here to help!"

The word "sanctuary" is embroidered on the cloth draped over the church's communion table — and its practice is held sacred.

In the 1980s, Southside's then-pastor, the Reverend John Fife, worked with Cowan to build an underground railroad to help people escape U.S.-trained and -funded death squads in Central America. Thousands of migrants slept on Southside's pews, and thousands more found refuge in 500 other churches the Tucsonans recruited nationwide. (For their efforts, Fife and 15 other activists later were indicted for smuggling aliens.)

Church members agreed to host Rosa with a nearly unanimous show of hands.

"Christ calls us to care for those who are persecuted and poor," Harrington said. "When we heard this family was going to be torn apart, it seemed like a pretty clear answer to us."

One of the many signs around Tucson supporting Rosa.
One of the many signs around Tucson supporting Rosa.
Jim Louvau

Rosa moved into a tiny back room with a bunk bed, a miniature refrigerator, and a microwave. Gerardo and the boys joined her at Southside on weekends, but between homework and baseball, life was just too hectic for the children to be away from home Monday through Thursday.

Every morning, Rosa called her sons to wake them. She kept them on speakerphone until they left to catch the school bus.

She kept busy during the day helping at Keep Tucson Together, which operated out of the church cafeteria several times a month preparing enchiladas, stews, and salsas for Southside Presbyterian's homeless-feeding program. Each Monday and Friday, she washed and folded hundreds of towels so the down and out could have hot showers. When she found free time, she studied the Bible and listened to audio English lessons.

In the evening, Rosa cooked dinner for her family. Gerardo fetched the food on the way home from work, gave her a kiss, then rushed off to get the boys to Little League practice.

As the weeks stretched to months, Rosa often cried herself to sleep because she missed them so. But, through it all, she never was alone. More than 150 people, not just from Southside, but also from local Catholic, Methodist, Quaker, and Unitarian Universalist congregations, volunteered to take shifts to stay with her at the church morning, afternoon, and night. To remind her of their solidarity, they wrote her prayers on brightly colored pennants and strung them up in the church courtyard where Gerardo Jr. liked to kick around his soccer ball on weekends.

"We pray for Rosa's case to be solved," one parishioner wrote on a yellow flag in permanent marker.

"We pray for all walls and fences to come down between peoples," wrote another.

"Our family sends love to your family," wrote another.

Every evening at 7, community supporters gathered for a vigil.

Sometimes a local poet performed. Once, a singing rabbi stopped by from out of town to strum his guitar for the crowd. Other times, Rosa and her supporters tramped around the facilities in a line singing the South African Hymn Siyahama:

We are marching in the light of God

We are marching in the light of God

We are marching

We are marching Oh Oh

We are marching in the light of God

Meanwhile, Cowan petitioned ICE to rescind Rosa's deportation order. When the request was denied (three days after it was filed), she and Sarah Lanius, a co-founder of Keep Tucson Together, devised a strategy to force the agency's hand.

They had yard signs and banners printed with a declaration: "We stand with Rosa." Parishioners were dispatched to dozens of churches across the city to pass out the signs after worship services. They went door to door in 110-degree weather to disperse them in every corner of Tucson — Dunbar Springs, Santa Rosa, Menlo Park.

Someone took 300 to a Bernie Sanders rally (and even managed to get a few on the stage).

"We stand with Rosa" signs were a hot commodity at city celebrations of César Chávez Day.

Eventually, more than 9,500 Tucsonans had posted them.

"We can honestly say to the government — to Rosa — this whole community wants this family to be reunited," said Leslie Carlson, a 68-year-old member of Southside Presbyterian Church. "Tucson really does stand with Rosa."

The Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in September 2014 calling on the Department of Homeland Security to close Rosa's case.

Cowan mailed a copy to ICE.

"Please reconsider," she wrote.

A few weeks later, the Tucson City Council, to the satisfaction of a packed chamber of retirees waving photos of Rosa and her boys, unanimously voted to send a letter to the White House demanding that the mother be allowed to stay. Rosa's deportation, council members argued, not only would tear her family apart, but would cause "further alienation" among many Tucson residents who "live with the constant fear that one of their family members may be, at any time, forcibly removed."

Cowan mailed a copy to ICE.

"Please reconsider," she wrote.

When Tucson's paper of record, the Arizona Daily Star, published an editorial in January supporting Rosa, Cowan mailed a copy to ICE. When local churches collected 7,000 letters from community members pleading on Rosa's behalf, Cowan mailed copies to ICE. When activists collected 12,000 signatures for a petition for her relief, Cowan mailed a copy to ICE.

"Please reconsider," she wrote.

And so it went until, over the course of 15 months, Cowan had sent 25 letters.

"We are like that dog that bites your foot and won't let go," Cowan said. "We never give up."

Respite came without warning or fanfare.

On November 3, Rosa and her supporters joined hands, as they did every night, and prayed that the government would lift the threat of deportation and allow her to return home to her family in Tucson.

On November 4, Rosa, Cowan, and Harrington cried as they learned that, after 461 days living in sanctuary, she'd be able to do just that.

Rosa stayed a week longer while Cowan worked out the kinks in what she stubbornly would describe only as "a confidential agreement" with the Department of Homeland Security. "[Rosa] will remain safely in the United States until Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform," Cowan said.

Then, on November 11, she invited all her supporters to join her at the chapel for one last emotional meal of taquitos and rice. She thanked everyone for their support, noting, to the crowd's amusement, that she was excited to see the "We stand with Rosa" signs around town for herself. She vowed to continue to advocate for relief for all undocumented immigrants.

"The struggle continues!" she said.

Harrington blessed her, Gerardo, Gerardo Jr., and Jose Emiliano, painting olive oil crosses on each of their foreheads as tears streamed down her cheeks.

Voice cracking, Harrington quoted the Book of Isaiah: "For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."

Then, fixing her gaze lovingly on Rosa's little family, she added a verse of her own: "So now go out from this place with peace, no longer in fear, now with joy," she said. "Go out from this place with our deep gratitude . . . Go out from this place with our love and our respect . . . Go out from this place with our blessing."

As Jose Emiliano, now 9 years old, dragged Rosa's little black suitcase across Southside's courtyard and out the rickety wooden gates, Gerardo snapped a photo with his smartphone.

He uploaded it to Facebook and typed in a caption:

"On our way home."


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