Sunlight shines through the large windows of the place that Ingrid Encalada LaTorre and her three children call home.
“I try to view living in sanctuary as being on vacation so that I don’t get too depressed,” says Encalada LaTorre, an undocumented immigrant from Peru who has lived in Colorado since the early 2000s — and in this Boulder church since late 2017.
But while she tries to maintain a sunny disposition, Encalada LaTorre is definitely not on vacation. The 37-year-old is living in sanctuary — and in limbo — at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder to avoid being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In December 2019, Governor Jared Polis pardoned Encalada LaTorre for a nine-year-old felony conviction, greatly improving her chances of gaining legal immigration status in the United States. But even with a pardon that clears her criminal record, she can’t risk leaving the church for fear that ICE will still detain her.
For the past ten months, that church has been largely empty because of the pandemic. Encalada LaTorre misses the familiar faces; she misses seeing the community that has supported her. Now, with the inauguration just days away, she’s hopeful that the federal approach to immigration will change and she’ll finally be able to emerge from sanctuary without having to worry about being arrested. But there’s no guarantee: To feel truly safe, to be able to stay in the country long-term, Encalada LaTorre still needs help from Congress or new president Joe Biden.
Ingrid Encalada LaTorre came to the U.S. after graduating from high school in a small town in Peru. She was on a search for the American Dream, she explains, when she went to live with an aunt and cousins in Evergreen.
Encalada LaTorre’s home town is in the mountains. She loves the snow, and remembers feeling right at home in Evergreen. She decided to stay in Colorado.
After working a variety of odd jobs during her first years here, Encalada LaTorre realized that she couldn’t find continuous work without having a Social Security number. So in 2003, she bought one on the black market.
She didn’t know that the number she purchased belonged to a real person. “I thought I was buying a fake or made-up number,” Encalada LaTorre recalls.
In the years that followed, Encalada LaTorre worked as a babysitter, a dog walker, a housecleaner, and a kitchen cleaner in a nursing home. In 2008 she gave birth to Bryant, her first child, and kept working.
But in 2010, local police came to her home and picked her up on criminal charges for using a stolen Social Security number. She was transported to the Jefferson County jail and was released a few weeks later — but then ICE arrived and arrested her for being in the country illegally. ICE later released Encalada LaTorre on a personal recognizance bond.
Later that year, Encalada LaTorre pleaded guilty to a felony count of criminal impersonation. She was unaware that a felony conviction on her record could have devastating consequences on her immigration status — and says that her lawyer at the time didn’t warn her.
In 2015, an immigration judge denied Encalada LaTorre’s petition for cancellation of her deportation order and granted her a chance to leave voluntarily. She appealed the decision, but a judge denied the appeal, saying she had to be out of the country by mid-2016. After the deadline for her departure came and went, the federal government issued a final order of removal for her.
During the 2016 presidential campaign — when candidate Donald Trump was taking a hard-line immigration stance — Encalada LaTorre attended a vigil organized by local immigration-rights advocates outside the ICE detention center in Aurora, where the federal government detains immigrants that it views as potentially deportable. There she met activists associated with the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, a movement started by longtime immigrant-rights advocate Jeanette Vizguerra and various faith leaders.
Encalada LaTorre discussed her situation with the coalition. Since she’d exhausted all of her legal options and ICE now had the final order for removal, sanctuary was likely the only way for her to stay in the United States.
Religious institutions opening their doors for individuals trying to escape what they believe to be wrongful prosecution or persecution is not a new phenomenon.
“It was a very longstanding tradition in the Catholic Church for many hundreds of years that if someone just needed sanctuary, no questions asked, they could go to the church and just be sheltered,” says Reverend Dana Lightsey, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder.
In the 1980s, faith communities across the country opened their doors to asylum seekers, mainly from Central America, who were at risk of deportation and saw sanctuary as a last resort. Over the past decade, congregations have again welcomed undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation. Under current ICE policy, immigration agents generally will not enter sensitive locations, such as churches, for enforcement purposes.
Advocates estimate that hundreds of undocumented immigrants are now living in sanctuary across the U.S.; at least five are currently sheltering in Colorado churches.
While entering sanctuary may stave off the immediate threat of deportation, it’s not a long-term solution for undocumented immigrants. They still need to sort out their immigration cases in order to have a chance at staying in the United States.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Removal Operations works to enforce the orders of immigration judges and works with individuals to be able to comply with their removal orders. Those who have no claim to relief, protection under the law, or basis to remain in the United States will ultimately be returned to their home country,” says Alethea Smock, a local ICE spokesperson.
In December 2016, not long after Trump was elected president, Encalada LaTorre found sanctuary in a Quaker church in Denver, moving in with Bryant and her second son, Anibal, by her husband, Eliseo Jurado. The two had met in 2010, right when Encalada LaTorre’s legal troubles began.
“The first time I entered into sanctuary was because of how much injustice there was in my case,” she says. “I got really bad legal advice and had bad legal representation.”
She stayed there for a few months, until ICE granted Encalada LaTorre a stay of removal so that she could attempt to gain post-conviction relief for her past felony case. She asked a Jefferson County judge to reopen her criminal case, citing her belief that her lawyer had been ineffective. In August 2017, the judge refused to do so, leaving the conviction in place.
A month later, Governor John Hickenlooper denied Encalada LaTorre’s pardon request. He told the Denver Post that the main reason he had decided to reject her request for clemency was because the victim of her criminal impersonation had opposed it. (Encalada LaTorre says she’s tried to apologize to the person whose Social Security number she used but her apology has not been accepted.)
In September 2017, ICE told Encalada LaTorre that she had a month to voluntarily leave the U.S.
She was ready to return to Peru with her two sons, she says, when Bryant told her he didn’t want to go.
“I made the decision to re-enter sanctuary for him,” Encalada LaTorre explains. She and her boys moved into a church in Fort Collins.
That year, the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition had been working with congregations in the Boulder area to form the Boulder County Sanctuary Coalition; about a dozen religious institutions signed on. One was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder, which volunteered to open its doors to a family seeking sanctuary. That move came after 90 percent of the congregation voted to do so, since its members would have to support the family.
In late 2017, Encalada LaTorre moved into the Boulder church with her sons; she wanted to be closer to her husband, who lived in their home in Denver.
Encalada LaTorre may be cut off from the world, but the world is certainly paying attention to her plight. She’s been the focus of national media attention, and even had a visit from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high-profile Democratic congresswoman from New York.
But she’s also been trying to live a normal life...and give one to her kids, too. “More than anything, the challenge is really just staying positive. These are really difficult times for all of us, not just myself,” says Encalada LaTorre.
In her early days in Boulder, Encalada LaTorre’s husband occasionally spent time with her at the church, and in 2019, she gave birth — also at the church — to a daughter, Elizabeth, in what she describes as an “unforgettable experience.”
Not long after, Encalada LaTorre was pardoned by Polis.
“Since your conviction, you completed your probation and paid restitution and back taxes. You are a dedicated and caring mother to your three children. You are working to educate others on legal ways to obtain employment and the consequences of using false documents,” Polis wrote in a letter notifying her of the pardon in December 2019.
It was a huge moment for Encalada LaTorre, and for the local faith and advocacy community.
“She’s just done such a good job raising those kids. It has always impressed me. I think she is a positive role model for the community to know how somebody can still care about everyone else when their situation has been so difficult to live with,” says Bob Norris, a longtime immigrant-rights advocate in Colorado who frequently visited the church and played with Encalada LaTorre’s kids.
But just a few months after the pardon, life began shutting down in Colorado because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Church services and other activities were curtailed.
Even though the church has been largely empty during the pandemic, Encalada LaTorre and her three children sleep together in a single room. They use a bathroom that’s shared with the church daycare in non-COVID times; the congregation installed a shower for the family. And they make use of the large kitchen that the congregation cooks in for large events — when it’s allowed to have large events.
They’ve spread out a little during the pandemic. There’s a room where Elizabeth can watch cartoons, a playroom for Anibal to try out new toys, and a space set up for Bryant to play Fortnite on PlayStation.
Volunteers shop for Encalada LaTorre, who never ventures off church grounds. And even when she’s outside on the playground or in the parking lot, trying to get some fresh air and exercise, she’s always looking over her shoulder, wondering if someone is going to come snatch her. But the congregation watches out for her, too.
“We are accustomed to having people at the church monitoring the door at all times if there are any activities going on. We also keep the front door locked at all times for Ingrid’s safety,” says Lightsey. “ICE has never shown up. There haven’t been any issues.”
But life during the pandemic is lonelier than ever. “On one hand, you could say it’s kind of normal, because I’m going on four years living in sanctuary, so this is kind of my reality,” says Encalada LaTorre. “But on the other hand, it’s a lot more isolating. You don’t really see people, like volunteers that would come before and people in the office.”
Now every day is like the day before. “I wake up, get the kids up, make food,” recounts Encalada LaTorre. After that, she gets Anibal, now five, ready for preschool; a volunteer linked to the church takes him there.
While twelve-year-old Bryant attends class online, Encalada LaTorre spends much of her time tending to Elizabeth, who turned one a few months ago.
Beyond that, she organizes fundraisers and sells food and artisanal items like masks, shirts and bags to get money to supplement funds donated by the congregation. She meets virtually with immigration-rights advocates, and occasionally takes time out to read a book or poke around on her cell phone.
She misses the activities of the church, the services and the classes that filled the place with vibrancy. Staffers don’t come to wor
k, and only a few volunteers still visit the church.
“When COVID hit, we were all saying, ‘Oh, wow, now we’re starting to see what Ingrid has been dealing with all along,’” says Lightsey.
But Encalada LaTorre still receives the occasional visitor. Just a few days after Christmas, Congressman Joe Neguse, a Democrat whose district includes Boulder, stopped by with his wife, Andrea, and their young daughter, bearing gifts.
“If we can draw more public attention to her case, I’m hoping that we can convince more hearts and minds who will in turn make their voices heard about what’s happening right now in our name in terms of the federal immigration policies that are just not reflective of our humanity or value as Americans,” Neguse says.
During his first term in Congress, Neguse introduced a bill intended to halt Encalada LaTorre’s deportation proceedings. So far, it hasn’t made any headway in Congress.
“Every time you turn around, he’s doing something to help her,” Norris says. “Joe and his wife are very nice people.”
But despite the support, the past year has been tough for Encalada LaTorre.
Living in sanctuary put such a strain on her marriage that she and Jurado split up last April.
“He got tired of living this type of life, and it didn’t work for him to always be living this routine and not be able to go outside as a family and do normal family things,” she says. “This was a huge barrier for us in our relationship, not being able to do things like normal family members.”
Now the kids generally spend Sundays with Jurado and the rest of their time at the church with their mother.
Says Encalada LaTorre: “I had always told him since the beginning that I wasn’t going to throw in the towel in this fight.”
Even after Joe Biden takes office, Encalada LaTorre knows the fight will not be over.
Theoretically, she should be much lower on the ICE deportation priority list. The federal agency had viewed her as a priority because she had a final order of deportation and was a convicted felon. Polis’s pardon removed one of those two strikes...but the other remains.
“On the one hand, the pardon has really helped my case. But as we know, immigration law and the system are completely broken,” says Encalada LaTorre, who describes her case as “very difficult.”
Whether ICE eases up and she is able to leave sanctuary while she litigates her claims to stay in the U.S. will depend on action from the White House.
“The good and bad to that is that it is purely a choice by the Biden administration,” says Hans Meyer, a Denver immigration attorney. (Encalada LaTorres’s current lawyer did not respond to an interview request.)
Now that the Democrats control the White House and the House of Representatives, with Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote on a split Senate, there’s a chance at meaningful immigration reform that Republicans have blocked for years. Through legislation, millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., including Encalada LaTorre, could see a pathway to citizenship.
But any real immigration reform is years away. In the meantime, lawyers like Meyer and immigrant-rights advocates across the country are lobbying for the Biden administration to issue an executive order to provide immediate relief.
The second term of Barack Obama and Trump’s time in office have demonstrated that the president can influence how ICE targets undocumented immigrants for enforcement and deportation. In the latter years of Obama’s tenure, the administration enacted prosecutorial discretion and created tiers of enforcement priorities, so that ICE ended up concentrating more on those with serious criminal convictions and less on those individuals whose only offense was crossing the border illegally.
Under the Trump administration, though, ICE was able to focus on all undocumented immigrants rather than just ones considered high-priority.
From September 2016 to December 2018, there was a 39 percent increase in the number of detainees with no conviction who were in ICE custody, according to a database maintained by Syracuse University. And the population at the Aurora ICE facility swelled to near-capacity in summer 2019, after huge numbers of arrests at the Mexico-U.S. border.
Biden has already promised to completely halt deportations for the first 100 days of his presidency.
“After a moratorium on deportations, the next thing Biden needs to do beyond that is provide some kind of pathway for citizenship or at least protection from deportation,” suggests Alex Ogle of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “This could be granting immediate legal protection for people living in sanctuary his first day in office.”
Then, without fear of being immediately deported, they could work on their cases.
“In many ways, that’s the most effective way to address the sanctuary movement,” says Meyer. “To give people a fair crack under existing immigration laws, a fair crack at due process of law without ICE arresting and deporting them in the middle of the night.”
So far, though, there’s been no sign that Biden plans to grant such protection — and with a final order of removal still in place, Encalada LaTorre is not about to leave sanctuary now. But just the prospect of relief keeps her going.
“We should never lose faith,” she notes. “I always say that. We’re living in these challenging times, in the shadows. But there is a light that there will be immigration reform in the next years for the 11 million of us that are living undocumented in this country.”
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