When — or if — Rosa Sabido can ever leave Mancos United Methodist Church, she wants to watch the sunset. She wants to go back to her home, sit by the river again, and visit her mother’s grave for the first time.
It’s the little things that Sabido said she misses most about being free, and it’s these little things that are just out of grasp and beyond the bounds of the church property.
Sabido is one of 45 people living in sanctuary at various churches throughout the country, according to Church World Service. Unable to leave the property for fear of deportation, Sabido has now lived at Mancos United Methodist since June 2, 2017. By November 2, 2019, she’ll have been living there for 30 months, “not going anywhere. Just remaining mainly in this building and on Sundays I go to the service,” she said.
She came to live at the church after immigration authorities denied her last request for stay of deportation. Churches and other houses of worship have become a popular spot for undocumented immigrants seeking sanctuary because immigration officials avoid taking action at these “sensitive locations.”
“It has been a wave of emotions,” Sabido said when asked how she is doing. “Some days I just am pretty calm and get along with the situation to cope with it, and some other days I feel the frustration that there’s so many things I need to take care of in my real life and I’m stuck here.”
After the Netflix series “Living Undocumented” was released in October 2019, we reached out to Sabido to discuss her unique experience. She graciously accepted our request to meet with her but asked us a simple favor.
“Please send me a message when you are leaving Durango, so I know is you who is knocking at the door,” she wrote in a message. “I have to be extremely cautious not to open the door to someone I am not aware of their visit.”
This was our introduction to Sabido’s day to day life at the tiny church off US Highway 160 in the Colorado town of Mancos, where she has made a life for herself.
When we asked about the Netflix documentary series, she nodded her head in recognition.
“Netflix called me and they wanted to be part of a documentary, probably that one,” she said. “I told them, ‘This is my life and this is how I live. It’s not that I have signs on the door. I’m not yelling or threatening.’ I guess they wanted something more than that. Well, this is dramatic enough, don’t you think?”
The road to sanctuarySabido is not a hardened, violent criminal, nor is she a “dreamer,” one of the 800,000 children brought to the United States without proper documentation. She’s just one of the 10 to 12 million immigrants living in America while undocumented, trying to lead a quiet, normal life as best she can. Before she came to Mancos United Methodist Church, she worked as a secretary for a Catholic parish and sold homemade tamales to make extra money on the side.
“I am just a normal person. I am not a criminal. I’m a person with dreams,” Sabido said. “I’ve been trying to have an immigration status from the beginning and it hasn’t happened. I have a clean record. I’ve been always working and paying taxes. It was just so normal.”
She was born in the Mexican state of Veracruz in 1964 and came to America when her stepfather, Roberto Obispo, started working in the agricultural industry in the United States, allowing him to apply for permanent residency because of a legalization program for special agricultural workers, according to previously published articles by The Cortez Journal. Her stepfather became a lawful permanent resident in the late 1980s and acquired citizenship in 1999, establishing a home in Cortez, Colorado, just 18 miles west of Mancos. He petitioned for Blanca Valdivia, Sabido’s mother, to become a lawful permanent resident. After doing so in 2001, she eventually become a citizen. However, since Obispo and Valdivia married on Sabido’s 18th birthday, Obispo was unable to petition for Sabido as well.
Sabido went back and forth from Mexico to Colorado visiting her mother until 1998, using a visitor visa. In 2001, Valdivia petitioned for Sabido to obtain lawful permanent residency; however, to this day, Sabido is still on the waiting list. It could be years before she can apply for residency based on her mother’s petition because of the limited number of visas available for each immigrant category, Jennifer Kain-Rios, Sabido’s attorney, told the The Journal in June 2019.
After being face with deportation in 1998, Sabido decided to try and obtain legal status, but after round after round of intense questioning in immigration courts, her application and all subsequent appeals were denied. After attending an interview with ICE in 2004, she joined her family in Cortez. In 2008, she was arrested by ICE officials and was released from the ICE office in Durango under an Order of Supervision. Kain-Rios filed an application for a one-year stay of removal in 2011, and Sabido was granted a one-year stay of removal five more times.
In 2017, however, her seventh application was denied and with her next check-in with immigration authorities scheduled for 10 days later, Sabido took up sanctuary at the Mancos United Methodist Church out of fear that she would be deported.
While she’s already lived at the church for more than two years now, Sabido fears that she won’t be leaving anytime soon. In March 2019, she received the devastating news that even after a face to face meeting, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton denied her request to sponsor a private bill that would allow her a pathway to permanent residency.
The toll of time“As more time goes by, the longer I stay here, I just feel that distance between this moment and the life that I left — what is my real life,” Sabido said. “The things that you used to do, or the things that I left behind, like my pets — I almost feel like they’re not mine anymore.”
In 2018, her mother died of cancer and Sabido was unable to attend her Mancos funeral. She hasn’t had an opportunity to visit her grave, either.
“Her departure is so unreal because I was not there and I haven’t been able to leave,” she said. “It’s like, I know it happened, but at the same time, it’s like I’m living inside a story that doesn’t allow me to touch the reality, to touch what I have lived through fifty three years of my life and this two and a half years has just taken me away from that reality of who I am and where I’m from.”
Her mother’s death was a devastating blow to Sabido, who took to Facebook to vent her frustrations.
“It doesn’t matter if we are babies and mothers or a fifty-four-year-old woman and a mother,” she wrote. “Families are family, and our family has been destroyed — separated.”
Despite being a nation of immigrants, immigration has long been a contentious issue among Americans, especially since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win. His impassioned speeches steeped in racist, generalized rhetoric have only served to demonize minority groups, which are already facing hardship.
In 2013, Gene Demby wrote for NPR on the use of language when it comes to the immigration debate. Using the term “illegal” to describe a human existence is seen as dehumanizing and racialized. The Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group, even went as far as sending out a memo asking Republicans to stop using the term.
“When talking about immigrants: Do use ‘undocumented immigrant’ when referring to those here without documentation,” the organization wrote. “Please consider these tonally sensitive messaging points as you discuss immigration, regardless of your position.”
Terminology matters when discussing nuanced topics like immigration. It’s easy to turn words and phrases to manipulate your subject and flippantly dismiss the humanity of others, turning them into a perceived threat where blame can be projected. One doesn’t have to look much further than Nazi Germany for examples.
Words especially matter to Sabido when describing her experience living in sanctuary. They don’t come easily, though.
“I can’t explain but it’s really hard for others to feel and realize how deep this is, because its not an experience that most people are going to live through. ... It’s like a rare disease. I know people try to understand and be empathetic, but there’s so many deep emotions.”
The point of no returnWhen asked if staying in America was worth all this stress and strife, Sabido is immediate in her answer: Yes.
“Living in Mexico is harder and harder. There are no jobs for a person my age,” she said. “Whatever the end of my story is, maybe that’s the way it should be. But maybe the end of the story is what matters. Maybe it’s what I live through.”
Her faith is strong, she said as tears pooled in her eyes, because it has to be, but the trauma of her experiences are still there. Despite her predicament, she still considers herself very blessed. There is a regular stream of people who come in and out of the church, working on projects with her and teaching her new skills.
“I see many blessings,” she said. “This is certainly a bad, bad situation, but if you only see the bad, you’ll find it everywhere. ... But if you look for the blessings, I see them everywhere, every day. And there are some day where I feel so much of those blessings.”
As we left our visit with Sabido that evening, Sabido politely held the door open and peeked outside.
“Be sure to enjoy the sunset tonight. It’s a beautiful one,” she said, wistfully staring out into the disappearing light spread out in brilliantly neon colors behind a distant tree line. It was indeed a beautiful sunset, and as we stepped outside we stole a guilty glance back at Sabido, who was held back by invisible strands of bureaucracy, an entanglement of complicated legislation, and the lack of right to exist in a country she’s lived in for more than 30 years.
Sabido waved goodbye to us and then shut the door once more.