From Tucson to Denver, from Phoenix to Philadelphia, nearly a dozen immigrants sought sanctuary in 2014 for the same reason: a last shot at being able to stay in the country they’ve called home for years.
But while officials are operating under the same set of guidelines, what happens after immigrants set foot inside their local church can be vastly different depending on where they are or how their case developed.
As of Nov. 30, about 41,000 immigration court cases — 7 percent of total closures of such cases — have been based on prosecutorial discretion, data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University show. They vary greatly by location and court.
Tucson has one of the highest percentages of closures based on prosecutorial discretion, at 36 percent. Phoenix is not far behind, with 18 percent of closures since October 2012 based on prosecutorial discretion.
Francisco Pérez Cordova, who left sanctuary at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church on Christmas Eve, is one of the latest beneficiaries. The 37-year-old father of five U.S.-born children had his deportation case closed nearly three months after he sought refuge.
“I’m very happy, very thankful with everyone who supported us, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said. “One family is happy, but what about the rest?”
A few days after Christmas, Pérez Cordova and his family visited with Rosa Robles Loreto, who is coming up on five months of living inside Southside Presbyterian Church.
Their camaraderie was evident as they spoke, catching each other up and commiserating on how their kids correct them when they mispronounce a word in English.
“‘Daddy, Daddy, that’s not how you say it, you say it like this,’” Pérez Cordova joked.
Robles Loreto said the visit was heartening.
“If it were up to me they would be here every other day, talking and sharing all the experiences he lived over there and my experiences here,” Robles Loreto said. “Even though we spoke regularly, there’s still a lot to talk about.”
She said she hopes his exit is the beginning of immigration officials taking another look at her case. That they will recognize she is a contributing member of society who just wants to work. That she can end her months-long stay at Southside and get back to her life.
But Robles Loreto knows about expectations. She’s been waiting for years.
In 2011, the Obama administration issued a Department of Homeland Security memo with guidelines for officers on deportation priorities, such as people who posed a threat to national security and convicted criminals.
Since the agency has limited resources and cannot deport all of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally, the idea was for officers to consider factors such as education, time in this country and criminal history when deciding who to deport.
Stopped by a Pima County Sheriff’s deputy in 2010 for a minor traffic violation, after which Border Patrol was called because she was in the country illegally, Robles Loreto initially sought prosecutorial discretion.
She believed she qualified: She has been in the country for years, she is a part of the community and she has no criminal record.
But the guidelines were just that: guidelines. Ultimately, it is up to officials.
This has led to a lack of consistency, immigration lawyers say.
“If you have individuals similarly situated, for example, a long history of being in the U.S., no criminal record, children who are U.S. citizens here, prosecutorial discretion according to memoranda is encouraged,” said Annaluisa Padilla, a vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“However we’ve seen a disparity, and we are not sure what ICE is thinking.”
When Padeilla’s clients are denied prosecutorial discretion, Immigration and Customs Enforcement simply says: “We are exercising our discretion in not granting prosecutorial discretion in this case,” without further explanation.
In some ways, Padilla said, it seems arbitrary.
Robles Loreto was never given an answer on her original petition, said her lawyer, Margo Cowan.
“This case should have been closed in 2011 under prosecutorial discretion. She submitted her tax information and letters of support but they never answered, either yes or no,” Cowan said.
“Rosa then went to an attorney who represented her poorly, never asked for her case to be closed, and put her on a path to deportation,” she added.
Of the 10 people who sought sanctuary last year, four are still inside church walls: Angela Navarro in Philadelphia, Arturo Hernández in Denver, Eleazar Misael Pérez Cabrera in Phoenix and Robles Loreto in Tucson.
Of the six outside, two decided to leave sanctuary early, while the rest received some sort of relief from immigration officials.
In May, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, the first person to seek sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian — home of the original Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s — was told by ICE that they would take no immediate action on his deportation order.
He stayed at the church and a month later was given a stay of removal which allowed him to leave.He has to apply again in a year.
Robles Loreto on the other hand, has spent 150 days inside Southside, the longest of any sanctuary seeker.
ICE has said that after conducting a thorough review of her case, the agency decided to exercise prosecutorial discretion by not taking immediate action on her deportation order.
As to why it decided to do that and not close the case or defer it as it did with Neyoy Ruiz, ICE Spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in an email that as a matter of practice they don’t discuss their deliberative process.
“However, decisions regarding prosecutorial discretion are made on a case-by-case basis – taking into consideration the merits of an individual’s case and a comprehensive review of the specific facts,” she said.
“ICE can exercise prosecutorial discretion in a variety of ways, including by terminating or administratively closing a case that is still pending with the immigration courts; issuing a stay of removal; or by declining to execute an outstanding order of removal, as we did in this instance.”
On Nov. 20, President Obama announced an executive action to defer deportation to certain parents of U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident children and extend the coverage of a previous program for children brought to the country illegally by their parents.
DHS also issued new guidelines on who should be considered a priority for deportation and directed officers to start reviewing cases in the earliest stage possible to ensure limited resources are focused on people who, for example, are convicted felons, suspected terrorists or recent border crossers.
As of Dec. 27, ICE has released 618 people nationwide who either qualify for one of the deferred action programs or are not a priority for deportation — about 200 were held in Arizona.
The agency is reviewing non-detained cases. And people who face imminent deportation can actively seek prosecutorial discretion.
Kice said its decision to close Pérez Cordova’s case was not the result of the executive action, but was based on allegations related to his former legal representation. Pérez Cordova has five U.S.-born children and would likely qualify for the deferred action for parents program, which he can apply for in May.
Still, with the new memo, immigration attorneys are more optimistic that prosecutorial discretion will be used more uniformly.
“We are very hopeful,” Padilla said. “It leaves a lot less room for interpretation.”
For Cowan, the fact Robles Loreto is still at Southside is unfinished business for the government.
“The administration has announced these new initiatives; maybe they still need to trickle down, I don’t know,” Cowan said. “For us, it only strengthens our resolve to keep working to close this case.”
A life-changing experience
Sanctuary continues to be difficult for Robles Loreto: the sleepless nights, the hopes raised and dashed, the anxiety of uncertainty.
But whatever the future brings, both Robles Loreto and Pérez Cordova said their time in sanctuary has had a profound positive impact on their lives.
“I used to think very differently of people. I thought they were only out for themselves. All of that has changed,” said Pérez Cordova.
“I’ve realized that people want to help. They don’t do it because they have to, they do it from the heart.”
If you’re undocumented, you’re always looking over your shoulder, they said. You avoid getting involved with others as way to protect yourself and your family.
But their experience seeking sanctuary has shown them they are not alone.
“It’s been almost like a spiritual retreat,” Robles Loreto said. “This has helped my family, all of us. We see things differently now.
“We realize we have a great family, a larger family, if we just take a chance and go look for it in our neighbors.”