For Jose and Sandra Chicas, a year in sanctuary has provided a front-row seat to President Trump's strict immigration policies. But it's also taught them that a sense of security comes from more than just a locked door.
When Jose Chicas first sought sanctuary from deportation in June 2017 at the School for Conversion, a religious education center in Durham, he was so afraid that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was going to come for him that he could barely celebrate at a birthday party for the school director's son. He couldn't even taste the cake, he says.
Jose came from El Salvador in 1985 and crossed into the U.S. through the Texas-Mexico border. After being detained by immigration officials and released on bond, he says, he was given bad legal advice and skipped his court date. As a result, he was issued a deportation order. During the 1990s, he struggled with alcoholism and was convicted of driving under the influence and domestic abuse. After converting to Christianity in 2002, he reconciled with Sandra and was ordained as a pastor at Iglesia Evangelica in Raleigh.
Despite the denial of his asylum application in 2008, he was able to stay in the U.S. through stays of removal and work permits. He received a social security number and driver's license, and he paid taxes. He visited the Charlotte ICE office for routine check-ins.
During the Obama administration, Jose still lived under a deportation order, but authorities never acted on it. When Trump took office, however, that all changed. By spring 2017, just months after the inauguration, the Chicases were told that Jose had to leave the country. Sandra, who says she has a work permit, would be allowed to stay with her four children, three of whom are citizens. (The other is a Dreamer.)
Jose says he was shocked to learn that he would be deported.
"I thought that when they told us that they were going to deport criminals, I never thought that I would be on that list," he says. "Because to me, criminals qualify as people who go robbing, people who are drunk driving, people who are benefiting from crime. For a situation with one deportation order from 1985, this doesn't make sense."
"When I see the stuff, for example, the children, how they treat the children, I've never seen that before," Sandra adds. "I say, 'Is this the United States?'"
"The spirit, the hatred of racism, it exploded," Jose says. "It went outside what's normal. ICE is crossing boundaries that they don't have to cross; they're separating families and searching people out. Trump has given them the green light and unleashed them."
As Jose settled into his new home at the school, he expected to be in sanctuary for only a short time. Thirteen months later, he's still there. Because ICE designates medical facilities, public demonstrations, and places of worship "sensitive locations" at which it typically avoids immigration enforcement, Jose is safe there—so long as he doesn't leave the property.
As the months have passed, he's found ways to occupy his time. He runs a car-washing business where people can set up a time to bring their cars by the school. He receives visitors in an open-house time during the week; some come seeking advice, others religious perspective. He's learning guitar and taking English lessons with a tutor. He gives interviews and leads Bible study and prayer sessions through Facebook Live and the radio, some broadcast as far as Argentina and his native El Salvador.
Asked if he's afraid, Jose responds confidently: "No, I am not afraid. I know they don't have the authority yet to enter my sanctuary. I feel confident, not like the first days here, because I didn't know that."
As Jose has adapted to his new environs, Sandra has also adjusted to her new normal. Now the primary wage earner in their household, she continues to work as a housekeeper at N.C. State, where she's had a job for the past eighteen years. She now preaches at their church, sometimes working with Jose to prepare sermons. (She says about twenty people left their very traditional congregation when she, a woman, began delivering sermons.) She also deals with immigration attorneys, politicians, and advocacy groups almost daily, working tirelessly on her husband's behalf.
In her efforts to help Jose, she's not always met with open doors; sometimes they get slammed in her face. After a town hall with U.S. Representative David Price, whom she knows personally, she asked Price to seek a so-called private bill for Jose—a legal last resort that grants permanent residency to an individual via a bill that passes through Congress and is signed by the president. Price told her that there was no way it would pass, she says.
In spite of the challenges, she says she's going to try to keep Jose in the country.
"Who will talk for my husband?" Sandra says. "I don't think about stopping. I'm going to keep saying it, because it's not fair. It's not."