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Six months later, undocumented woman still waits in sanctuary

For six months, Rosa Robles Loreto has been anchored to a small room on the grounds of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.

She spends her days and nights there because the church is a safe harbor, protecting her from a voluntary deportation order that expired in August 2014. Her husband Gerardo and her two sons, Gerardo Jr., 11, and José Emiliano, 8, are at home and she is still anchored in a small room, with a bunk bed, a television and her thoughts.

Robles Loreto is one of 11 people who went into sanctuary at churches nationwide, part of a burgeoning movement resurrected in the early summer when Southside Presbyterian allowed Daniel Neyoy Ruiz to seek refuge from deportation. After 27 days and pressure from supporters, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to give Neyoy Ruiz a stay from deportation for one year.

On Aug. 8, Robles Loreto and her family went into the church and by mid-November she was joined by eight others at churches across the United States, including Beatriz Santiago Ramirez in Chicago and Angela Navarro in Philadelphia.

However, six months later Robles Loreto remains in sanctuary, while Ramirez and Navarro have left the confines of their churches, highlighting the complications and flaws of the U.S. immigration system's reliance on prosecutorial discretion.

"The immigration system has always been dependent on individual offices and how they interpret certain guidance," said Maurice "Mo" Goldman, an immigration attorney in Tucson. "Discretion is the key word here. In some cases they don't have as much, but when it comes to enforcement issues, it really does matter who you're dealing with." 

Immigration officials repeated this in an email about the case involving Neyoy Ruiz.

"ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis, considering the totality of an individual’s case, including but not limited to criminal history, immigration history, family and community ties, humanitarian issues and whether he or she is likely to receive temporary or permanent status or other relief from removal," wrote Virginia C. Kice, a spokeswoman with the agency.

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In August, immigration officials said that "after conducting a thorough review of Ms. Robles Loreto’s immigration case" the agency had decided not to take immediate action against her.

However, lawyer Margo Cowan remained unsatisfied with that answer. 

"Unless she has an order on a person issuing a stay of removal, if some Border Patrol agent were to confront her in a traffic stop, his instructions would be to remove her from the United States," Cowan said during a public meeting in September. "So, we've asked the United States for a stay of removal."

Such a stay wouldn't be unusual.

At the end of 2014, prosecutorial discretion was used to close around 42,000 cases, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University. More than 36 percent of those closures were based in Tucson-area courts, while Phoenix was about 17 percent.

Data from TRAC also shows that in 2014, more than half of all court cases were likely to result in relief, termination, or closure. TRAC projects that in 2015, courts in Arizona will grant some form of stays to 60 percent of cases.

However, across the United States, that likelihood becomes dramatically less likely depending on the court's location. Nationally, only about 45 percent of cases result in some form of stay while the remainder result in an order of removal or voluntary departure.

The nation's toughest immigration court is in Georgia, where nearly 83 percent of individuals are ordered deported. 

Among the 11 who went into sanctuary, five are still waiting for some form of relief.

Ramirez, who went into sanctuary at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Chicago just three days after Robles Loreto, had her case administratively closed while she waited for her application for a U-visa, dedicated to victims of criminal activity, including domestic violence. 

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Navarro went into sanctuary on Nov. 18 and waited 59 days before ICE granted her a stay of removal for two years. Meanwhile, Luis Lopez Acabel, who went into sanctuary at University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, left sanctuary on Dec. 13 after he was told by ICE that he met the criteria for deportation deferral.

Another Phoenix-area sanctuary effort helped Marco Tulio Coss Ponce receive an "order of supervision," in July which he decided was enough protection.

On Nov. 2, President Obama announced a set of executive actions which expanded on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

"You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," said Obama during a televised speech, laying out a series of criteria that illegal immigrants must meet to earn a reprieve from deportation.

The changes extended the deferred action period for young immigrants from June 15, 2007 to January 1, 2010 and removed age restrictions. The action will also extend the employment authorization for so-called DREAMers from two years to three years.

The president also announced that parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents could apply for deferral.

The action has been challenged by 26 states, including Arizona, in a lawsuit which argues that Obama overstepped his constitutional authority. Meanwhile, the National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, attacked the action in a statement published Friday.

Arguing that the administration has failed to support agents, the union said that the White House was supporting the "agendas of extreme pro-illegal immigration groups" by pushing for the deferrals. The complaint echoed a similar one published in 2011 by the union for ICE agents.

By late November, it was clear that Tucson’s two sanctuary cases wouldn’t be immediately fixed by the president’s speech. Instead, the Cordova family nervously waited for almost another month before Francisco Cordova was able to leave St. Francis at the Foothills on Christmas Eve.

While the president's announcement was celebrated by immigration activists, the actions also created a legal limbo for Robles Loreto because her two children were born in Mexico.

Even if the boys are given deferrals by U.S. immigration authorities, the deferral may not extend to Robles Loreto or her husband Gerardo. 

Cowan hopes to use the boys' deferral to keep Robles Loreto in the United States, however, those applications won't be accepted by U.S Citizenship and Immigration Service until Feb. 18. 

"It just wouldn't make sense to keep children here and yet deport their parents," Cowan said.

Until then, Robles Loreto will have to wait.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Rosa Robles Loreto has spent six months waiting for relief from her voluntary departure order which expired Aug. 8.

Sanctuary cases

Rosa Robles Loreto - Went into sanctuary at  Southside Presbyterian Church, Tucson on Aug. 8, 2014. - 183 days.

Beatriz Santiago Ramirez - Went into sanctuary on Aug. 11, 2014 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Chicago. Left sanctuary Dec. 29, 2014 after her case administratively closed pending a U-visa, dedicated to victims of violence. - 141 days.

Miguel Sanchez Olguin - Went into sanctuary on Nov. 11, 2014 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Chicago. - 27 days

Francisco Aguirre - Went into sanctuary on Sept. 22, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Portland, Oreg. - 138 days.

Arturo Armando Hernández Garcia - Went into sanctuary at First Unitarian Society in Denver, Colo. on Oct. 21, 2014. - 109 days

Luis Lopez Acabel - Went into sanctuary at University Presbyterian Church, Tempe on Sept. 11, 2014. Left sanctuary Dec. 13, 2014 after being told by ICE that he met the criteria for deportation deferral. - 93 days.

Francisco Perez Cordova - Went into sanctuary at St. Francis in the Foothills, Tucson on Sept. 25, 2014. Left sanctuary Dec. 24, 2014 when his case was administratively closed by ICE.  - 91 days.

Eleazar Misael Perez Cabrera - Went into sanctuary at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix on Nov. 17, 2014. - 82 days.

Angela Navarro - Went into sanctuary on Nov. 18, 2014 at West Kensington Ministry Church, Philidelphia. Left sanctuary Jan. 15, 2015 after ICE granted her a stay of removal for two years. - 59 days.

Daniel Neyoy Ruiz - Went into sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church, Tucson on May 14, 2014. Left sanctuary June 9, 2014 after ICE granted him a stay of removal for one year. - 27 days.

Marco Tulio Coss Ponce - Granted an 'order of supervision' before going into  sanctuary at Shadow Rock UCC in Phoenix on June 25, 2014. - 0 days.