By Debbie Bruell
Sopris Sun Correspondent
On Oct. 19, local immigrant rights leader Sandra Lopez moved into a house on Cleveland Place, and she doesn’t know when she’ll feel safe enough to walk outside again. The house is the parsonage of Carbondale’s Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation (TRUU), with whom Lopez is taking sanctuary.
Just one day earlier, Lopez had learned that her legal stay of removal had been denied. In an interview with The Sopris Sun, Lopez said she began shaking when she heard the news, thinking of what that decision would mean for her family. Instead of presenting herself to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) the next day, where she was scheduled to be detained and then deported, she made the difficult decision to take sanctuary.
“My future is uncertain,” she told The Sun. “I feel scared and sad. I’ve tried to do everything right. I’m here showing my face. I’m not hiding. I’m not running away.”
Lopez explained that her name was entered into the ICE system when she was wrongfully arrested in 2010. Although all charges against her were dropped and she has no criminal record, the law at the time required police to report anyone they suspected of being undocumented to ICE. (This law has since been repealed in Colorado.) Lopez has been fighting her deportation case since that time.
Up until last week, Lopez lived in Silt with her husband and two of her children: her son Edwin (13) and daughter Areli (almost two). Her 18 year old son, Alex, is attending Mesa State University in Grand Junction, studying mechanics. Her three children are US citizens.
Lopez had to leave her husband, son, home and employment (cleaning houses in Aspen) in order to take sanctuary. She brought her young daughter to live with her in the parsonage. Her husband and sons come to visit them when they can.
As difficult as it’s going to be to live in sanctuary, Lopez explained, she felt as if she had no other choice. She could not imagine separating her family across national borders, nor did she want to move her entire family to Mexico. “There’s so much violence where I come from in Mexico,” she told The Sun. “Violence in the streets, in the parks…For the safety of my children, I couldn’t move my family there.”
Lopez and her husband moved to the United States in 2001 because they dreamed of making a better life for themselves, she said. “But now the system has no compassion…it’s separating families… the system is broken.”
About a year and a half ago, Lopez founded the local immigrant rights group, Colorado SOUL (Solidaridad, Organización, Unidad, Lucha. Solidarity, Organization, Unity, Struggle). Through Colorado SOUL and her work with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), Lopez has lobbied for immigration reform and worked to educate the immigrant community about their rights and available resources.
Providing sanctuary to a person at risk of deportation is not very common; Lopez is one of only five people currently living in sanctuary in Colorado. Nevertheless, the TRUU congregation’s decision to become a sanctuary was relatively straightforward, according to their minister, Reverend Shawna Foster.
Since taking her position a little over a year ago, Foster said the congregation has been actively involved in helping people in a variety of situations–from assisting women dealing with domestic violence to supporting those fighting for native rights at Standing Rock. Providing sanctuary is just another expression of their faith, Foster explained, in line with their commitment to help those in need, speak out against injustice, and build community connections.
Foster believes that community members should be asking themselves: “Is this really what we want from immigration laws? Is the law helping and protecting our community, or tearing it apart?” Lopez, in particular, is the kind of person we need in our communities, Foster said. “Every time I saw Sandra she was working on bringing the community together… Sandra is part of the connective tissue of our community.”
Foster had met Lopez previously through her advocacy work with immigrants. In fact, Lopez was one of the speakers at an immigrants’ rights vigil organized by TRUU last May. TRUU publicly announced their decision to provide sanctuary at the vigil. Several people spoke to the crowd, including representatives from three other faith communities and Lopez, as a representative of Colorado SOUL. “I never imagined that I would be the one to be taking sanctuary with the TRUU community,” she said.
Foster explained that there is no law stating that it’s acceptable for churches to provide sanctuary to those at risk of deportation. However, ICE has an “internal memo” indicating that they won’t raid “culturally sensitive areas,” such as churches and schools.
“We’ve let ICE know what we’re doing,” Foster said. “Sandra is saying to ICE, ‘Here I am and I need you to look at my case and allow me to stay.’”
The Town of Carbondale passed a resolution in August stating that no town employee, including police officers, will take any action based solely on a person’s immigration status; and no town employee will assist federal immigration officers without prior approval from the Board of Trustees (except in the case of an ongoing criminal investigation).
Lopez’s new home
Lopez and her daughter are living in the basement of the parsonage, which includes one small bedroom, a bathroom, washer/dryer and spare room. Foster, her husband, and two children live upstairs. Everything is completely legal in terms of housing codes, Foster explained.
The TRUU congregation has paid for the expenses of turning the unfinished basement into a living space. They are accepting donations to continue making the area more livable by installing carpet, painting walls, etc. Donations for construction costs, legal fees, food and other sanctuary expenses can be made online at: www.plumfund.com/charity-fundraising/sandra-belongs-here
While living in sanctuary, Lopez plans to work on her English and explore different religions. “One thing I like is that I’ll now have a lot of time to be with my daughter,” Lopez said, “100% of my time.”
Lopez also plans to continue her immigrants’ rights advocacy work. “I can’t go outside,” she said, “but I can plan campaigns, I can talk with lawmakers… I can talk with anyone who will listen.”