Phoenix Church Grants Sanctuary to Longtime Mexican Resident Facing Deportation

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For more than a week, 47-year-old Sixto Paz has been living in a small room in the back of a Phoenix church. If he steps off the property, he risks being deported to Mexico, which would mean abandoning his family and the life he has built in Arizona over the past two decades.

"If he leaves the property and is confronted by Homeland Security, he will be deported," says immigration attorney José Peñalosa, who is representing Paz. "They have the authority to remove him immediately from the United States."

Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, just off West Thunderbird Road, offered Paz sanctuary, and he moved in on May 31. As set out in a 2011 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memo, federal agents are not to make arrests at "sensitive locations," including schools and churches.

"I'm scared and I’m confused because I don't know what will happen," Paz told New Times during a phone interview. "I work. I take care of my kids. Now I am here."

Peñalosa says Paz has been legally working and living in the United States since the 1980s. He first came here through an amnesty program that allowed him to work on this side of the border and travel freely in and out of the country. For the next two decades, he worked as a roofer and built a life in Arizona. He married and had two daughters, both U.S. citizens. Following a divorce, he fathered a son, now 5 years old and also a U.S. citizen, with another woman.

"I don't want to go back to Mexico, because my family is here," Paz says. "It's not easy to go back to Mexico and start again. My daughters are here. I don't want to leave my son. I want to stay with him. I want to watch him grow up. A father should stay with the son.” 

"He's an excellent person," says Peñalosa, who took on Paz's case pro bono. "He's got three kids that were born here, owns a home, works, pays taxes, no criminal record, and he's a very humble man. He just simply wants to be with his family and work."

Peñalosa blames bureaucracy and bad timing for preventing Paz from becoming a permanent resident, though he continued to work legally, through the amnesty program.

"What's unique here is he’s been here over 20 years and he’s done things correctly in an effort to immigrate. And each opportunity that he's taken advantage of, some technical reason — a policy decision, a change in case law, a political change — has caused him to be unable to immigrate," the attorney says. "I haven't had a case like this during my 25 years as a lawyer. It's just wrong."

Just weeks ago the U.S. Department of Justice's Phoenix Immigration Court denied his petition to stay in the country and closed his case.

Peñalosa hopes to persuade the Department of Homeland Security to reopen his client's file so Paz may avail himself of the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. The program would allow him to petition to immigrate through his eldest daughter, who is over the age of 21, a requirement of the program. Once he becomes a legal resident, Paz could attempt to tackle citizenship. (DAPA has been on hold since early 2015, when a federal judge issued a temporary injunction to halt it.)

Meanwhile, Peñalosa says, Paz will live at the church, where he is frequently visited by his family and friends.

"The major challenge of being in sanctuary is the isolation a person experiences," says Ken Heintzelman, senior minister at Shadow Rock. "It is a sad choice for a person to make."

Since 2014, Heintzelman and his church have opened their doors to immigrants seeking refuge. After his case was closed in immigration court, Paz came to the church and asked for help. 

"I talked to the congregation and explained my case," he says, explaining that he had to quit his roofing job in order to seek sanctuary. "They said I could come here, no problem. They said it doesn't matter how long I have to stay here. They helped me a lot."

Heintzelman says the church will allow Paz to live on the property until his lawyer finds a legal remedy to allow him to remain in the U.S. 

"Sanctuary is a tool in the legal toolbox that gives a person and their attorney time to navigate a broken immigration system to get an administrative remedy," the minister says. "Sanctuary is a moral and faith strategy. Historically, government agencies have respected the people and places offering sanctuary."

In June 2014, a Guatemalan man sought asylum at a Tempe church to forestall deportation. Luis López Acabál lived inside the University Presbyterian Church in Tempe for 100 days before successfully immigrating through the DAPA program.

That year, local church leaders launched Sanctuary 2014, a movement in which a network of churches throughout the nation banded together to "protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation," according to the group's website. 

"Offering sanctuary is an important ministry, because it keeps families together, established lives intact, and, in some cases, it saves lives," Heintzelman tells New Times. "It is important especially at this time, when the political rhetoric is so ugly and anti-immigrant. The ministry of sanctuary is a way of putting action in a pro-immigrant counter-narrative that is necessary given our current anti-immigration political climate."

Read the 2011 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Memo Regarding Arrests at "Sensitive Locations":

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