This Catholic retreat center is hiding two immigrants in plain sight from federal immigration agents

"When I got to the school, I told him to pray for us, that this might be the last time he would see us."

Every day over the past seven months, Jorge Taborda has woken up with a sense of purpose at the Holy Cross Retreat Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. When groups of people in need of spiritual renewal arrive at the retreat center, he is there to help clean up and to contribute to the group activities.

Behind the effusive greetings and hugs, Taborda — an undocumented father who fled persecution in Colombia for the United States in 1998 — is facing his own challenges. Seven months ago, he received an urgent call from his wife after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained her on her way to work. ICE also detained their oldest son Jeff.

At the time, Taborda had been at the local hospital with their 14-year-old son Stephen for his weekly therapy session. After Stephen’s session ended, the pair went out to the hospital parking lot where undercover agents waited to act on a final deportation order, a federal enforcement action that can result in deportation. Agents agreed to let him drop his son off at a school before detaining him.

“These agents appeared like normal people,” Taborda recounted in an interview with ThinkProgress inside one of the retreat center’s libraries. “They were wearing normal clothes, they had no badge, they had no weapon, they had no documents to show me. I told them that I could not just leave my son there. I told them I couldn’t just abandon my son. So they told me that they would follow me to the school, I could drop off my son, and then I’d follow them to El Paso. And they promised— they kept saying that they would let my wife go if I followed them.”

“When I got to the school, I told him to pray for us, that this might be the last time he would see us.”

With agents following his car, Taborda told his son what had happened in the car ride to school and what could happen soon.

“When I got to the school, I told him to pray for us, that this might be the last time he would see us,” Taborda said. “He already knew that— we had already prepared him that he could potentially go to another family, and we’d prepared documents of powers of attorney of a family that could take care of him.”

After dropping off his son, Taborda didn’t stop for immigration agents. Instead, he drove to Our Lady of Health, a Roman Catholic Church in Las Cruces. As agents drove two or three cars behind him and allegedly rear-ended his car, he said, it felt like angels had taken the wheel because it was such a surreal experience. Agents backed off when he got to the church property. Later that night, a local immigrant advocacy group drove Taborda to the retreat center, six miles away.

Jeff, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiary who has temporary deportation relief through the Obama-era program, was released a few days later. Taborda’s wife was deported to Colombia, an event that Taborda recalled through heavy sobs.

“[T]he way she was expelled from this country was so dehumanizing.”

“[T]he way she was expelled from this country was so dehumanizing – no money, no clothes, no contact in a country that she hadn’t been in for almost 20 years,” Taborda said.

The Trump administration has marked its first year pursuing people like Taborda. Since President Donald Trump took office, federal immigration agents have detained immigrants at a rapid clip through workplace raids and home arrests, up 42 percent compared to the same time period last year according to official ICE statistics. Trump’s executive orders on immigration also authorized large-scale detentions of the undocumented population regardless of criminal background, in an apparent shift from the Obama administration. That has meant “targeted” enforcement actions result in the detention of immigrants standing near the intended target. It has also meant people like Taborda — a church-going immigrant with U.S. citizen children, and positive equities to contribute to his community — are detained.


Surrounded by 60 acres of pecan trees and desert flora, Holy Cross is one of a few dozen religious places around the country that have taken in immigrants with pending orders of removal.

The Department of Homeland Security — the parent organization of ICE and its sister agency Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — has generally avoided picking up immigrants in “sensitive locations,” or places of worship, schools, and hospitals where arrests could disrupt the daily activities of those areas. Since the 1980s, many places of worship have provided refuge for immigrants avoiding federal immigration agents as part of the so-called “sanctuary movement.” The Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona — the birthplace of the movement — provided aid and temporary shelter for 13,000 people fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. After President Donald Trump took office, more than 400 places of worship have offered to provide shelter, take immigrants to their annual ICE check-ins, or showed solidarity with immigrants. Many congregations that take in immigrants prioritize those with longstanding ties to the country and have U.S. citizen children.

While it never went away, the movement received national urgency again after Congress approved the Secure Communities program in 2008, a deportation program that relies on a partnership between local and federal agencies to drive out immigrants. The Obama administration later replaced the program with a less terrible deportation policy that prioritized the deportation of criminal immigrants. Places of worship experienced a resurgence of “sanctuary movement” activity after the administration began furiously cracking down on people with decades-old criminal records and newly-arrived Central American immigrants.

Now in the age of Trump, Holy Cross has offered “Franciscan hospitality” to Taborda and Martha Lorena Rivera, another undocumented immigrant at the retreat center who chose not to turn herself over to the federal government in October.

The federal immigration agency became aware of Rivera, an immigrant from Mexico with three children, for the first time in 2006 when her coworker at a restaurant reported her to federal officials. She said she received a voluntary departure, but came back to the country two weeks later. She again came to the government’s attention in 2011 when her son got into a car accident and called her to the scene. She has since had to check in with the ICE agency every year to receive a stay of removal. In October, the ICE agency ordered her to surrender for deportation to Mexico.

“My world crumbled.”

“Honestly, my world crumbled,” Rivera said, holding back tears in an interview with ThinkProgress on retreat center grounds. “I begged [the ICE agent], told her that my daughter was in school and did not have anyone to pick her up.”

The agent gave her until the following Monday, just four business days, to sort out her affairs. Rivera prayed for a way to stay in the country so that her 9-year-old daughter — who had been born 30 weeks premature and had special needs — could continue receiving the care she needs. During an English lesson with a pastor’s wife later that week, Rivera learned about the New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFe), an immigrant rights advocacy group based in Las Cruces that hosts a hotline to help immigrants in imminent deportation proceedings. She called the number after the lesson, and CAFe organizers put her in contact with Holy Cross officials.

“I was at the office wrapping up some things, and I got a call on our migra watch hotline,” Johana Bencomo, a CAFe community organizer, told ThinkProgress. “It was Lorena telling me that she was set to report to ICE that Monday and that she was about to be deportedShe told me she had an 8-year-old daughter. And we’ve been working with Father Tom all year on sanctuary. And immediately I knew to call him and ask. And immediately he said, ‘yes, she’s welcome.'”

Rev. Tom Smith, the director at the retreat center, says that the retreat center offers “Franciscan hospitality” instead of “sanctuary” because the latter term implies safety. The center can’t guarantee ICE agents won’t breach the two retreat center entrances. But there is implicit trust that Taborda and Rivera are not hardened criminals so the federal government won’t sweep them up in an enforcement operation.

“I chose to say ‘hospitality’ for us Franciscans, because we come out of the traditions of St. Francis of Assisi and Scriptures, and ‘hospitality’ because we’re saying you need a place to stay and we have a place for you,” Smith said.

It makes sense that Holy Cross won’t call itself a sanctuary space for Taborda and Rivera. “Sanctuary cities” have been heavily criticized since the San Francisco Police Department chose not to turn over a five-time deportee, who later pulled a gun that shot and killed Kate Steinle. Trump has repeatedly focused on Steinle’s story, and the term “sanctuary” has invited even more controversy under his administration, including from right-leaning lawmakers and media.

HOLY CROSS RETREAT CENTER IN MESILLA PARK, NM IS PROVIDING "FRANCISCAN HOSPITALITY" TO TWO UNDOCUMENTED PARENTS WHO ARE UNDER GOVERNMENT ORDERS TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY. (CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE)
HOLY CROSS RETREAT CENTER IN MESILLA PARK, NM IS PROVIDING "FRANCISCAN HOSPITALITY" TO TWO UNDOCUMENTED PARENTS WHO ARE UNDER GOVERNMENT ORDERS TO LEAVE THE COUNTRY. (CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE)

Situated 42 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the retreat center is remarkably accessible to the public. Two tall white signs reading “Holy Cross Retreat Center Franciscan Friars” greet people at either entrance as they drive towards the characteristically New Mexican white adobe chapel. Pecan trees butt up against the parking lot on the south side. A motel-like structure exists on the grounds to accommodate hundreds of people at a time. So tranquil is the retreat center that the loudest disturbance come from nearby owls hooting at dusk.

As part of its hospitality conditions, Smith made it publicly known to the ICE agency that the retreat center took in Taborda and Rivera. Consulting with various lawyers and organizations — namely, CAFePICO, a national community organizing group; and CLINIC, a Catholic legal immigration network — he wrote a letter to the local ICE field office saying Holy Cross extended hospitality to the pair of immigrants. He included the retreat center’s address, his phone number, and Taborda and Rivera’s personal information. 

By writing the letter — which I was very nervous about at first — telling them that they’re here, they can’t say, “Well you were hiding them.” I say, ‘No I got a copy of the letter I sent to you,'” Smith said. A lawyer told him that keeping Taborda and Rivera’s whereabouts unknown could make him “more liable for being arrested for harboring a fugitive, meaning hiding.”

“And that way, in one sense keeps me from being arrested for that cause,” he added. “I don’t know if that’s very true. It’s not been tested so far as I know and certainly not here it hasn’t, but at least that was the intention.”

The decision by religious houses of worship to provide “sanctuary” — which could lead to heavy criminal penalties — doesn’t come easily. Some congregations go through a months-long, sometimes years-long, process requiring legal counsel to reach a unanimous consensus on whether to shelter immigrants from the federal government. Congregations choosing to “welcome the stranger” oblige out of a prophetic call to action, drawing parallels to the biblical story of Joseph and Mary who were turned away by innkeepers when they sought refuge. Ultimately, places of worship provide a place for immigrants to stay as they sort out their immigration issues and try for a chance to stay in the country.

The retreat center’s decision to provide shelter for immigrants came in March, two months after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Taborda came to Holy Cross in May, and Rivera in October. In that time, the two immigrants have been contributing to the retreat center by cooking for the groups of people who arrive for spiritual renewal, cleaning rooms, and presenting their own stories. Rivera’s 9-year-old daughter lives with her on retreat center grounds, as does Jorge’s younger son.

“I do not want to feel a burden while I’m here seeking refuge,” Taborda said. “I work in the kitchen, I clean rooms. I will do anything that they bring to me with pleasure. And then I will go to the sanctuary and pray and meditate.”

Smith said he’s not providing sanctuary because of the president’s repeated calls to deport people in the country violating civil immigration laws.

“I’m not doing this because I have any political agenda because I don’t.”

“I’m not doing this because I have any political agenda because I don’t,” Smith said, leaning back into an office chair surrounded by Christian paraphernalia. He explained that other Catholic parishioners can understand what he’s doing after they hear that Taborda and Rivera have been in the United States for more than a decade each, pay taxes, support their families, and are “productive, prayerful good people.”

“I’m doing it out of my Gospel values and my Franciscan lifestyle,” Smith added. “These are people who need some place to live and we can provide that.”

Both Smith and Bishop Oscar Cantu of the Diocese of Las Cruces evoke Pope Francis’ action plan for refugees and migrants released in August. Francis has made migration a focus of his papal legacy, marking his first official visit outside Rome in 2013 to the island of Lampedusa, where African migrants and refugees generally first reach to set foot in Europe. Since then, he has called on Catholic parishes everywhere to take in migrants and refugees and to more generally uphold the dignity of these vulnerable populations. 

Every human person — whether they have immigration papers or not — they’re human beings,” Cantu told ThinkProgress after an event honoring Taborda and Rivera. “We need to recognize them as human beings with that dignity.”

Earlier in the day, Holy Cross invited parishioners to reenact a Posada scene on the retreat center grounds, alluding to the biblical story of Mary and Joseph on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in search of a room.

“[K]eeping families together is crucial. Where the family unit goes, there goes society,” Cantu continued. “If we tear apart families, the nuclear family…that affects the future of those children, the future of society.”

Still providing shelter for Taborda and Rivera is just a stop-gap measure. Everyone recognizes it’s not a good long-term solution. In spite of the sprawling grounds and various buildings to explore, Rivera said her daughter is starting to question whether Mom really is on “vacation.”

“Lately she’s been telling me that I’ve been resting for too many days and that it’s time to go home,” Rivera said.


Kira Brekke contributed to the production of this video

Funding for this trip was made possible by the PICO National Network, a “national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities.”