“Ay, quieren todo,” Ms. Robles says. (“They want everything.”)
But the boys, who are visiting their mother, know that she can’t take them to the pool, can’t go to their baseball games and can’t pick them up from school. Ms. Robles, 41, is confined to the Southside Presbyterian Church, where she claimed sanctuary in August after receiving a deportation notice. There is no indication that she will be leaving the church anytime soon.
In the months since she took up residence in the church, her story has spread throughout Tucson, where homes and businesses display “We Stand With Rosa” posters and a Twitter account keeps tabs on her case. Her hashtag is #LetRosaStay.
Supporters hoping to block her deportation to Mexico have organized rallies, circulated petitions and written letters to President Obama. But her situation remains unchanged.
Ms. Robles and her husband came to Tucson from Mexico 16 years ago, although they returned to Mexico for the birth of Gerardo Jr., 12, and his brother, Emiliano, 9. The couple came back to Tucson with their children, where Ms. Robles worked as a maid. Her husband, Gerardo, who has a different last name, keeps his identity private because he is now the sole breadwinner.
Ms. Robles was driving her employer’s van in September 2010 when she accidentally drove into a traffic cone near a construction site. A Sheriff’s Department officer saw the incident, pulled Ms. Robles over and determined that she was undocumented.
She said she was held for 40 minutes before a Border Patrol agent arrived and recalled weeping at the thought of leaving her children.
— Rosa Robles Loreto
Ms. Robles spent a month in a detention center about 60 miles northwest of Tucson before being released on $3,000 bond.
Margo Cowan, Ms. Robles’ lawyer, said her client did not understand the immigration process at the time. She said Ms. Robles unwittingly asked the judge for voluntary deportation in 2012.
After realizing her mistake, Ms. Robles appealed, but her appeal was rejected in 2014. When she received a formal deportation notice, she sought advice from Ms. Cowan and learned that she could turn to the church for protection.
“Sanctuary is more of a spiritual and political tactic than a legal one,” Ms. Cowan said. Although there is nothing to stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement from taking Ms. Robles into custody, Ms. Cowan said a level of respect is maintained between ICE and the religious community.
A spokesperson for ICE said that the agency would not take action on her removal order, but added that her request to drop the deportation case had been denied, The Arizona Republic reported in August.
The 2014 Immigration Accountability Executive Action by President Obama states that the deportation priority list includes only those who are a threat to national security and public safety. Ms. Robles’s record is clean.
Noel Andersen, a coordinator for the Church World Service, a global organization whose work includes immigrants’ rights, said that there were hundreds of churches around the country that offer sanctuary for immigrants, but few have had active cases. Sanctuary was more common in the 1980s, especially in the Southwest.
Ms. Robles is the latest of more than 40 people who have crossed the border illegally and who have sought shelter at Southside Presbyterian since the 1980s. She sleeps in her own room, roughly 15 by 15 square feet, with twin-size bunk beds, a TV and a mini fridge. She has a routine of TV and Internet surfing, cooking and sitting in meditative thought. She listens to Christian music. She prays.
“I have a lot of time to think,” Ms. Robles said. “I used to think that the entire world hated me and my family, and we felt so marginalized. But seeing so much support is what has made us so strong and feel like we’re not alone. We realize that when we are heard, the support comes.”
“This is not an easy decision for someone to make,” Ms. Cowan said. “The moment she claims sanctuary, she’s not just trying to protect herself ━ she has become a civil rights leader.”
Ms. Robles has become a rallying point for the immigrant rights movement, and she is proud of it. “I’ve been asking, ‘Why God? Why me?’ and I know he has given me something to fight for,” she said.
But she misses her old life. She misses work and home. Mostly she misses her children.
She watched Emiliano ride his red bicycle around the church courtyard. Now that her boys are out of school, she said, she hopes her sometimes dark moods might brighten.
“I fear that I might be missing some important parts of their lives,” she said. “But they understand and they know that all of this is to keep us together.”
Produced by Yolanda Martinez