When Araceli Velasquez entered sanctuary at the building shared by Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah in August 2017, she was facing imminent deportation. An undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, she saw sanctuary as her last hope to keep her family together. She had no idea that she’d spend almost a year living in a dark church basement, watching the world pass by outside, unable to leave the church grounds to take her three kids to the park or drop them off at school. Nor did she know that living like this would also turn her into a community activist.
But now, almost eleven months later, Velasquez has become a voice for immigrant communities that she believes are facing longstanding and ever-increasing injustices. Her work started last fall, when she and the three other women who have claimed sanctuary in Colorado began communicating from afar to draft a document called the People’s Resolution, which calls for a path to legal status for all of the “Sanctuary Four,” as well as the countless others in similar situations.
“We had this idea that we had to do something, because it’s not fair that we've been in sanctuary for so long,” Velasquez says. (All quotes from Velasquez have been translated from Spanish.)
The American Friends Service Committee is spearheading an effort to collect endorsements for the People’s Resolution across the Denver area. In August, it plans to bring the People’s Resolution to Colorado's congressional delegation. The AFSC hopes legislators will pay heed to the women who have sacrificed their freedom to stay in the United States with their families and advocate for official mercy to allow them to leave sanctuary without being deported. It also hopes to galvanize support for the wide-scale policy changes recommended in the resolution, which range from creating a path to legal permanent residency for Temporary Protected Status and DACA holders to repealing a 1996 immigration overhaul called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which Human Rights Watch has said facilitates family separation and eliminates due process.
According to Jennifer Piper, who has been coordinating the canvassing efforts, the People's Resolution was crafted out of a desire to properly address one of the most common questions thrown at undocumented immigrants facing deportation by well-intentioned supporters and xenophobic detractors alike: “Why didn’t you just come here legally?”
The four women in sanctuary, Piper says, have an answer to that: There was no way for them to enter the U.S. legally in a sufficiently timely manner to protect their lives, and all of their best efforts to obtain legal status since arriving here have failed.
“The myth that there is a path [to legal status] for them is so pervasive, they wanted to focus on something that would really detail why they couldn’t apply for a path in the first place,” Piper says. She explains that each of their cases reflects common barriers that undocumented immigrants face: They are all from mixed-status families, and current law provides no way for them to apply through their children or parents. Velasquez, for example, has three children who are U.S. citizens, a clean record and, according to Piper, a strong case for being granted asylum — but she's been the victim of a faulty immigration process and bad luck.
Velasquez decided to flee her native El Salvador in 2010, when her life was being threatened. She made the month-and-a-half-long journey through Guatemala and Mexico alone, and without much money. It was hard enough, she says, to be forced to take refuge in an unfamiliar country where she didn’t speak the language. But she had no idea that she would also end up spending years trying to convince the courts that the threat to her life was grave enough that she could not return to El Salvador.
That’s what Velasquez has been trying to argue in the process of applying for asylum. Because of privacy concerns and fear of further threats to her family, she does not want to publicize the specifics of the situation she was fleeing. But even she didn't fully understand why she was being threatened in El Salvador, which InSight Crime calls the most violent place in the world apart from war zones. “The violence doesn’t have logic,” she says.
When Velasquez crossed the southern border in 2010, she was apprehended by Border Patrol agents and detained for a month and a half. After volunteer lawyers informed her that she could apply for asylum, she had a preliminary hearing in which an immigration judge established that she had a “credible fear” that prevented her return to El Salvador, gave her a trial date and set a $4,000 bond for her release, which her family in the U.S. helped pay off. That’s how she landed in Denver, moving in with her cousin to take care of her cousin's children as she adjusted to life in America.
During that time, she met her husband, Jorge Velasquez, one of the estimated 200,000 Salvadorans who are here under the Temporary Protected Status program, which the Trump administration announced will end in the fall of 2019 — putting his status at risk. Araceli hired a lawyer to defend her asylum claim, but, Piper says, the lawyer didn’t adequately prepare for the case. Araceli lost her case in 2014, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered her removal. In July 2016, immigration agents came to her house, planning to arrest her, but she was granted a yearlong stay because she was pregnant with her third child. She requested another stay in July 2017, but it was denied.
Velasquez knew she couldn’t leave the country, but that if she stayed she could be arrested and put on a fast track to deportation. She had closely followed the case of Jeanette Vizguerra, a Denver activist who claimed sanctuary in February 2017, and she began to talk to Piper about sanctuary.
According to Piper, the Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah had gone through their own processes of learning about immigration law, and each congregation overwhelmingly agreed to open their doors so that Velasquez could take refuge in the building while her second lawyer continued to gather documentation to help her reopen her asylum case.
“I know I have a legal case,” Velasquez says. “If I don't get asylum, it would be like the end of my life. I can't go back to my country. So it would be as though this government is taking my life away and leaving my kids as orphans. If I could have returned to my country I would have done it already. It’s not easy to be shut inside a church for a year.”
Velasquez and her family, who moved into the church with her temporarily because of rent hikes, have reluctantly adjusted to a life where she can't leave the church grounds. She wakes up at 7 a.m. each day and makes breakfast for her three young sons: Jorge, five; Christopher, three; and Kevin, one and a half. Her husband goes to work at a car dealership. Some days, volunteers come to take the kids to the park. Otherwise, they play in the usually quiet, sacred spaces of the joint church and temple, where over the months they have discovered most of the secret hiding places.
“Sanctuary is not happiness, not for families, not for my kids,” Velasquez says. “I try to make sure this doesn’t affect them too much, but of course it does, because there are days that they can’t go anywhere.” Her boys get stir-crazy, and so does she. She sometimes looks out the window to see a beautiful Colorado day and feels trapped.
And still, she says, “I live with this fear of immigration coming to the church and taking me away. This is what I worry about every single day.”
At the entrance to the church, there is a clipboard with a yellowed piece of notebook paper that reads: “IF ICE COMES CALL,” followed by the phone numbers of community members who have pledged to respond rapidly in case of an emergency. ICE considers churches “sensitive locations,” where raids and arrests are not to be carried out, but Velasquez says she doesn’t trust that agents won’t cross that boundary and try to deport her anyway.
Despite her fears, Velasquez has taken up an increasingly public role. In May, Congresswomen Diana DeGette visited Velasquez in sanctuary to offer support. And in early June, when family separation at the border was the media controversy of the moment, Velasquez spoke at her first-ever rally in front of the church. There she saw an opportunity to raise public consciousness about what was happening to her. “My children were born here, and they want to separate them from me. I feel that it’s the same thing that they’re doing with kids at the border,” she says. “For anyone who says, ‘We have to separate these children from their parents,’ I want you to imagine that you’re seeing your own kid in a cage.”
A repeat Zero Tolerance for Family Separation march will be held this Sunday, July 15, starting at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, in honor of Velasquez's eleven months of sanctuary. Velasquez is always open to volunteers who want to come to the church to play with her kids or just get to know her over a meal, but she also hopes that new public consciousness around immigration will help support the People's Resolution, which you can sign online.
"What I ask is that the community wakes up already and stops all of this. Because I know that the community is stronger than the government."