Still in Sanctuary: Two Months Later, Mexican Immigrant Remains Confined to Phoenix Church

Standing among the vacant pews inside Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, 47-year-old Sixto Paz gazes through the glass walls at the desert landscape.

"When I feel sad, I come here for the privacy," he says. "Just to sit in silence and look at the view."

When he needs that privacy, he doesn't have to go far to find it.
For more than two months, the church just off West Thunderbird Road in Phoenix has been Paz's home. If he leaves the property, he risks being taken into custody by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which has the authority to deport him to Mexico.

"I don't want to go to back Mexico and start a new life," says Paz, who has worked legally as a roofer in Phoenix since the 1980s. "At this point in life, it would be hard."

The U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement generally forbids federal agents from making arrests at places of worship, schools, and hospitals.

Shadow Rock opened its doors to Paz to provide refuge through the Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of churches that have banded together to protect immigrants who are facing deportation. The movement dates back to the 1980s but saw a renaissance in 2014, after Congress failed to pass immigration reform.

A second Mexican immigrant — who asked not to be named on the advice of his attorney — has been living at Shadow Rock for the past seven months.

Paz lives on the first floor of the church, in a room so small that a twin bed takes up most of the space. He and his fellow resident have become friends. They spend their days shooting baskets on the church's outdoor court and their evenings inside, playing board games and watching Netflix in the TV room.

"Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's hard. I have good days and bad days," Paz says. "The worst part is not seeing my family."

Each week, Paz's adult daughters visit to bring food and bring clean clothes. His brother is maintaining his house and paying the rent. And his boss is holding his position open indefinitely.
Paz first came to Arizona through an amnesty program that allowed him to work in the United States and travel freely in and out of the country.

Employed as a roofer, he made a life in Phoenix, marrying and fathering two daughters, both of whom are U.S. citizens. Following a divorce, he also had a son, now 5 years old and also a U.S. citizen, with his girlfriend.

Paz had always intended to pursue U.S. citizenship for himself. But everything changed for him earlier this year, when he learned that his work visa was being revoked and he would be forced to return to Mexico.

His immigration attorney, Jose Peñalosa, took up Paz's case, filing petitions to allow him to seek permanent residence through the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. Once he becomes a legal resident, Paz could tackle citizenship. (DAPA has been on hold since early 2015, when a federal judge issued a temporary injunction to halt it.)

This past May, the U.S. Department of Justice denied Paz's petition and closed his case. Since then, Peñalosa has been working to persuade the Department of Homeland Security to reopen his client's file.

Arlene Dominguez, the director of Shadow Rock Sanctuary Ministry and a member of the ministry for the past 25 years, says her church is very progressive.

"I believe the work we are doing is saving lives and keeping families together," she says. "That's my motivation."

In June 2014, Luis López Acabál, a Guatemalan man, lived for 100 days at University Presbyterian Church in Tempe before gaining citizenship.

In Tucson, Rosa Robles Loreto lived at the Southside Presbyterian Church for 15 months before she was able to become a U.S. citizen.

Paz is the fourth immigrant to live in Sanctuary at the Shadow Rock church. The first immigrant taken in by the church was able to resolve his case legally. The rest remain in limbo.

Paz's fellow Sanctuary refugee comes from an area in Mexico known for its violence and high crime rate. A relative who was deported to Mexico was killed within months of returning.

"It would be a death sentence for him," Arlene Dominguez says.

"There's so much crime and violence there," says the man says, who is sitting beside her at a table in the church's game room.

Dominguez says the Sanctuary Movement is continuing to grow.

"Our goal is 1,000 churches and 1,000 attorneys," she says, explaining that an immigrant must be represented by an attorney in order to be considered for Sanctuary.

"When we first started [at Shadow Rock], I don't think we had total support. There were some members of the congregation who question Sanctuary and why we're doing it," Dominguez says. "Sure enough, they came around. They've become very supportive."

She says Paz and the other immigrant will remain at the church indefinitely.

"They've all been a blessing to us at Shadow Rock," she says. "We are blessed that we got to know them and help them."
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.