Obama gives 'sense of excitement' for those in sanctuary
'President Obama says you get to stay!' — Pastor to man in sanctuary in Tucson church
President Barack Obama's announcement of new policies for immigration enforcement means that two people who sought sanctuary in Tucson churches while facing deportation have new hope that they won't have to leave their families behind. Francisco Perez Cordoba and Rosa Robles Loreto watched Thursday's speech, surrounded by parishioners at their churches.
"You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," said Obama, laying out a series of criteria that illegal immigrants must meet to earn a reprieve from deportation.
Both Robles Loreto, who has been in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church for more than 100 days, and Perez Cordoba, who has been at St. Francis in the Foothills church for 60 days, said Thursday that they know the new policies won't immediately affect them.
Cordoba, who watched Obama's announcement of his executive order with about 50 others at the United Methodist church, said before the president spoke that that what he wants most is to "go home tonight. I know it won't happen, but that's what I want."
"The people in this church are beautiful people. They treat me well. But I want to be with my family," he said.
His wife, Sarai Milla, said, 'I didn't want to be too excited before because we didn't know. Now it's a reality that soon my husband is going to be home."
"Even as we're celebrating let's remember there is still work to do," said Jim Wiltbank, the church's pastor.
"All of your love has made this happen," Wiltbank told those gathered to listen to Obama. "Don't stop that love. Continue loving this family, but continue loving all those others who maybe don't quite qualify, who were left out of this action but who need to be in this country as well."
Watching at the South Tucson church with about 100 other people, Robles Loreto said, "I'm happy to hear about the people who have some relief, but I'm going to continue on the path."
Under the new policies, which in part expand on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program implemented in 2012 by Obama, "Rosa's two children will qualify for DACA and this would give them the opportunity to reopen Rosa's case," said attorney Margo Cowan, who represents both Robles Loreto and Cordoba.
Cowan said the change is significant and will Robles Loreto to again bring her case before an immigration judge. Similarly, Cordoba will be covered because his five children are all U.S. citizens.
A Mexican national, Loreto and her husband have lived in the United States almost continually since 1999, except for a three-year period when she stayed in Mexico for the births of her two sons, now ages 11 and 8.
Before taking sanctuary at St. Francis in September, for nearly a year Cordova feared leaving his home. With a formal order of deportation hanging over his head, he worried that a drive to work or the grocery store could lead to his removal from the United States, separating the father of five from his wife and children.
Thursday, he gained some hope.
"I'm not going to be hiding anymore," he said.
As Obama spoke, Cowan translated some of his words for Robles Loreto, sitting with her and her family in the pews at Southside.
Obama's immigration order doesn't directly apply to Robles Loreto, but her attorney and pastor believe they can find a way to obtain legal status for her. With her having returned to Mexico for the birth of her children, she falls outside a new program that will cover those who are parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents — which will include Cordoba.
"We know the door has been opened for Rosa and she will eventually return home," said Rev. Alison Harrington, the pastor of the Presbyterian church.
Harrington warned those whose hopes were raised by Obama's announcement to be wary of scammers who could take advantage of immigrants trying to change their status.
"We all have a great sense of the excitement of this moment. And, this just the beginning of a new era," Cowan said after the president spoke. "And we will raise our voices to ensure that everyone will get to stay in this country."
"There are 750,000 people in DACA and if the removal process was used for them it would collapse. So we've already won," she said. "This order will never be able to be turned around."
Obama's executive order lays out certain criteria that undocumented immigrants must meet to not be eligible for deportation. The new policies include:
- Directing immigration and border agents to concentrate on arresting criminals and focus on public-safety threats.
- Easing the way for skilled immigrants, foreign citizens who graduate from U.S. universities and entrepreneurs to obtain work permits and remain in the country.
- Providing temporary relief from deportation for immigrant workers and families who have been in the United States for more than five years, and have children who are U.S. citizens or legal residence. To qualify, applicants must register, pass a background check and pay taxes.
"The president has taken DACA and expanded it to include the children of U.S. citizens," Cowan said.
"It's an incredible victory," said John Fife, a former pastor of Southside Presbyterian who started the sanctuary movement in the 1980s. "We are closer than we ever were before. Just about 4 million people are covered, but there's 7 million more people who should be included."
A 2013 law that codified a 2011 immigration policy blocks border agents from making arrests in places that are considered "sensitive," including schools, hospitals and churches, without prior approval. The regulations outline some exceptions to this rule, namely national security, pursuit of a felon, destruction of evidence, or the possibility that someone could be harmed.
At the Methodist church in the Foothills, Wiltbank said that there are "a lot of people on the outside of this order, and there may be another person who needs sanctuary and St. Francis may be the place for them."
"The people at St. Francis are good at saying yes to that call," he said, noting that his congregation voted 147-4 to become a sanctuary church.
After 60 days at the church, Cordova said that he felt good, but that Thursday's announcement was overwhelming.
He said that his boss has already called him to return to his job, and that he wants to go home soon.
"Maybe not tonight. Maybe not next week. But soon."
TucsonSentinel’s Maria Coxon-Smith contributed to this report.