Tucson woman marks one year in sanctuary
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Tucson woman marks one year in sanctuary

In a small room at a South Tucson church, Rosa Robles Loreto counts the things she's missed: The birthdays of her two sons. Their baseball games, too numerous to count. Her anniversary with her husband. Christmas. 52 weeks. One year. 

A year has passed and despite months of public outreach and political pressure, federal immigration officials will not rescind a deportation order that prompted her to seek refuge on Aug. 7, 2014. 

In July, supporters launched the "25 Days for Rosa" campaign, beginning on her birthday and ending Friday. 

The campaign distributed nearly 10,000 signs with the words "We Stand with Rosa" and an image of Robles Loreto with her family throughout 11 Tucson neighborhoods. Volunteers, including 25 high-school students with BorderLinks, a nonprofit educational program, went door-to-door asking for people to post the signs in their front yards.

'I've missed a year, but I want to feel like a victory is coming.'

The effort followed thousands of letters, emails, faxes and other messages sent to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and the White House asking to allow her to stay in the country. 

In a written statement Thursday, spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe reiterated the agency's announcement that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "continues to exercise prosecutorial discretion in the matter of Ms. Robles Loreto’s immigration case by not taking action to enforce her removal order." 

This echoes a statement made last year by the agency, which said that after a "thorough review" the agency had decided to exercise prosecutorial discretion by "not taking immediate action" on the removal order. 

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The statement is less a guarantee than an acknowledgement that the agency won't send federal agents into the church to get her. That's not enough for Robles Loreto, who has lived in Tucson since 1999 and wants something that will prove to law enforcement officials that she can stay in the country legally, even if only for a year's time. 

Without it, if Robles Loreto leaves the church and is pulled over in another ordinary traffic stop, like the one that landed her in this situation five years ago, she could end up in detention and likely face immediate deportation to Mexico. Once she's deported, she doesn't think she could return to her husband, Gerardo, and her two sons, Gerardo Jr., 12, and José Emiliano, 9. 

"It's not enough for them to say they won't come get her," said Margo Cowan, the family's attorney. "We need some acknowledgement, some piece of paper that says she cannot be deported by authorities. We ask the White House and President Obama to make this happen so that Rosa can stay with her family." 

"I’m embarrassed," said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva. "When it comes down to it, I’m embarrassed that despite all this effort, including letters from nearly 60 members of Congress and hundreds of phone calls and personal appeals, Rosa remains in sanctuary and the Department of Homeland Security remains unmoved."

"When we started this, we were maybe romantic in thinking that this would be over quickly," said Rev. Allison Harrington, the pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church. "We thought that after a few months, we would be successful and Rosa would be with her family." 

"I knew it would take time," said Robles Loreto, "I came with a lot of fear and worry about my family and what they would do without me."

According to Harrington, supporters have sent 7,800 letters and 596 faxes to Johnson and the director of the White House's domestic policies Cecelia Muñoz, and a petition to the White House was signed by 4,075 people. Additionally, at least 52 church congregations have signaled their support, along with civil rights leader Dolores Huerta. 

In March, Harrington and Gerardo Jr. traveled to Washington and met with officials. 

Robles Loreto was one of more than a dozen people who went into sanctuary at churches nationwide, part of burgeoning movement resurrected in May 2014 when Southside Presbyterian allowed Daniel Neyoy Ruiz to seek refuge from deportation. 

After 27 days, Neyoy Ruiz was granted a stay of deportation for one year, which was then renewed by officials this summer. A third Tucson sanctuary case ended nearly as quickly on Christmas Eve when Francisco Cordova was granted a year stay by immigration authorities.

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Arturo Hernandez, an immigrant who stayed in a Denver church for nearly 10 months, left sanctuary in July after receiving a letter from ICE that he was not a priority for deportation. While Hernandez will rely on the letter, Cowan says the statement given to Robles Loreto offers no protection. "There's nothing in that statement that gives her protection from the final order of deportation that comes up when a Border Patrol agent opens her file." 

Robles Loreto's case highlights the complications and flaws of the U.S. immigration system's reliance on prosecutorial discretion, which allows immigration judges and agents to make decisions on case-by-case basis. 

In September 2012, Robles Loreto faced an immigration judge with the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review, who decided she was eligible for removal. Robles Loreto fought the decision, but a series of mistakes by her former attorney, who missed deadlines and failed to file the proper paperwork, left her unmoored.

 In June 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed her case and reinstated her order of removal. 

Robles Loreto was one of nearly 257,000 people who had removal orders in 2014, the highest number in five years, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University. 

When her case started in 2012, the odds that a noncitizen would be ordered deported was nearly 63 percent, however, changes to the immigration system and an enormous backlog of cases has dropped those odds below 48 percent. 

At the end of 2014, prosecutorial discretion was used to close around 42,000 cases, more than 36 percent of those closures were based in Tucson-area courts. 

TRAC projects that in 2015, courts in Arizona will grant some form of relief to around 60 percent of cases. 

In November 2014, the Obama administration doubled down on the use of prosecutorial discretion when the president announced a raft of executive actions intended to repair what he called the nation's "broken immigration system." 

"You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," said Obama during a televised speech. In addition to an expansion of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the President announced a program that would grant the same protection to parents. 

The address offered a glimmer of hope for Robles Loreto and her family, however, those hopes were soon dashed when 26 states, included Arizona, filed a lawsuit and stalled the program in federal court.

However, a three-tiered system of enforcement priorities intended to focus the immigration system on "criminal aliens," has gone unchallenged and remains in effect. 

In May, Grijalva sent a letter to Homeland Security asking for accountability mechanisms and information regarding the implementation of the department's enforcement priorities. The letter was to address reports, Grijalva said, that ICE was targeting individuals under all priorities equally, ignoring the specific directions from Johnson and the White House. 

In at least three dozen cases, ICE officials had ignored the priority tiers and had pursued people otherwise eligible for discretion, according to a report published in April by United We Dream and the National Immigration Council. 

In the meantime, Robles Loreto makes dinners for her family in the church's kitchen and spends time with volunteers who arrive in three shifts a day to keep her occupied. At night, there's a prayer vigil and her sons spend breaks from school with her. 

"With the community around me, I feel stronger," she said. "I feel stronger because of God and my family. I've missed a year, but I want to feel like a victory is coming." 

Until then, she waits. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Rosa Robles Loreto, her family and supporters at the end of a vigil at Southside Presbyterian Church Friday marking the one-year anniversary when she took refuge at the church from a deportation order.