On February 28, 2002, Jose Chicas found God. All these years later, he remembers the date because he marked it in blue ink with the words “received Christ” and tore that month from his calendar. He carries it with him, along with a worn Bible.
He had it in hand on Wednesday as he asked for mercy—not from God but from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Chicas, a pastor and father of four, was set to be deported from the U.S. on June 28. Instead, he has taken up sanctuary at the School for Conversion, a religious education center in Durham, with the support of its director, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and the Reverend William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. Before holding communion, they gathered outside the School for Conversion, based in a small house in Walltown, to discuss why Chicas had been offered sanctuary and to urge ICE to reconsider its deportation order.
"There are no illegal human beings," Barber told a crowd of supporters, clergy, and reporters.
Chicas, fifty-two, came to the U.S. in 1985 from El Salvador, which at the time was embroiled in a brutal civil war. He was stopped by immigration officials in Texas and released on bond. Before, in his words, he was “rescued by God,” he struggled with alcoholism and in the 1990s was convicted of driving under the influence and domestic abuse. Now the pastor of Iglesia Evangelica in Raleigh, Chicas is asking to be able to stay in the place he has called home for more than thirty years.
“I am not a delinquent,” Chicas said. “I have been with my wife for twenty-five years. I did my time.”
The Reverend William Barber speaks in support of Jose Chicas, in yellow, a Raleigh pastor facing deportation. Since June 28, Chicas has been taking sanctuary at Durham's School for Conversion, run by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pictured behind Barber.
Chicas was issued a final order of removal from the country after skipping an immigration court date at the advice of a previous attorney. He applied for asylum, but his application was denied in 2008.
Throughout his time in the U.S., he has had regular check-ins with ICE and has been issued work permits and stays of his removal from the country, according to his current attorney, Helen Parsonage. But, says Parsonage, Chicas was told earlier this year his deportation would no longer be put off.
While President Obama in his second term prioritized violent criminals for deportation, an executive order from President Donald Trump broadened who would be targeted for removal and decreed that ICE will not exempt "classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
”If anybody else were about to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their sobriety, we would be as a country congratulating him, patting him on the back and his friends and family would be celebrating twenty years of sobriety,” Parsonage said. “Instead, they’re trying to deport him and tear him away from his family.”
Parsonage says she has submitted additional documents to immigration officials urging them to reconsider denying Chicas a stay of removal.
Barber met Chicas through his youngest son, Ezequiel
, at an immigrant rights rally near the General Assembly last month. It was then that Barber offered to help Chicas find sanctuary.
Places of worship, schools, medical facilities, and public demonstrations are considered by ICE to be “sensitive locations”
where immigration enforcement should be avoided. Greensboro churches have also recently taken in immigrants.
“ICE officers and agents may conduct an enforcement action at a sensitive location if there are exigent circumstances, if other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location, or with prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official,” the agency says.
Wilson-Hartgrove said the ICE field director in Atlanta, Sean Gallagher, has been notified that Chicas is being protected by the School for Conversion but as of Wednesday morning, had not responded. An online petition
has been started seeking a halt to Chicas’s deportation and had garnered one hundred signatures by Wednesday afternoon.
“One of the things I have noticed in Pastor Jose is his deep sense of mercy,” Wilson-Hartgrove said, recalling Chicas praying for ICE officers during the week they have spent together.
The faith leaders are hoping to appeal to the morality of those in charge of Chicas’s fate. “God’s moral law demands” sanctuary be extended to those in need, Barber told the crowd.
“We should long ago have lined our laws up with the woman in the harbor in New York who says ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,’” Barber said, referring to the Statue of Liberty. “Isn’t it interesting that we want to take immigrants’ work and what they produce, then punish them and not the people who make money off their work and then abandon them when they’re in situations like this?”
Chicas has spent most of the past week inside the School for Conversion, reading the Bible to pass his time. He misses his family and his home, but he says he will stay here as long as necessary. His wife, Sandra, and Ezequiel visit him daily, but his other three children have had to work. Three of Chicas’s children are U.S. citizens, and the oldest is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Huddling after a press conference and prayer, Parsonage advised Sandra Chicas to be ready for "the long haul."
Sandra Chicas said the hardest aspect of the ordeal has been seeing the effect on Ezequiel. “Why my father?” he asks. She doesn’t know what she will do if her husband is deported—stay behind with her children, leave them to join her husband in El Salvador, or uproot her entire family.
“I want to think everything will be OK and immigration will give my family the opportunity to be together,” she said.