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The Harrowing Story Of How An Undocumented Man Found Sanctuary In An Arizona Church

CREDIT: ALICE OLLSTEIN
CREDIT: ALICE OLLSTEIN

TEMPE, ARIZONA — -Luis Lopez-Acabal has been living in a small, windowless, wood paneled room for nearly a month. The space, which used to be an office at University Presbyterian Church, holds a single bed with a handmade quilt, a dresser, and shelves bearing his few belongings. The overhead lighting is harsh and fluorescent. In an adjoining room, a worn reclining chair faces a television and a stack of old VHS tapes, mostly children’s films.

Sitting in the chair, picking at the frayed fabric, Lopez-Acabal told ThinkProgress in Spanish that he often loses track of the date and time. “The days feel long,” he said. “I feel safer here, but it’s hard to be away from my family.”

Lopez-Acabal is here thanks to the new sanctuary movement, a network of churches across the country who are publicly challenging federal immigration laws by sheltering undocumented people at risk of deportation.

I feel safer here, but it’s hard to be away from my family.

Growing up in Guatemala, Lopez-Acabal was courted by a local mara, or gang, when he turned 16. After weeks of avoiding the group, he was cornered by them and given an ultimatum: 24 hours to either join the gang, leave the country, or die. Within a few hours, his family put him on a bus headed north.

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He spent a month working his way through Mexico, working and saving money in each city and then buying a bus ticket to the next one. “It was a very difficult journey, but since I couldn’t remain in my country, I had to find a way,” he said.

He crossed the border in 2007, which involved nearly a week of walking through the desert, carrying as much water as he could. Once he arrived in Phoenix, he got a job working as a night janitor and maintenance worker at a local school. It was there, a few years later, that he met his wife Mayra Canales, a legal resident from Mexico, and her two-year-old daughter Kimberly and five-year-old son Kevin.

“They call him Dad,” University Presbyterian pastor Eric Ledermann told ThinkProgress. “He’s the closest thing — the only thing — they know as a father.”

Driving home from work one day, Lopez-Acabal got pulled over by local police. What happened next is familiar to anyone in Arizona. Due to expanded police powers under the state’s infamous SB1070 law, a simple traffic stop turned into an immigration checkpoint, and he found himself in deportation proceedings. He applied for asylum, saying he could meet the legal requirement of “credible fear” of returning to his home country, but he was rejected, and given 45 days to leave the country. His wife tried to sponsor him for residency, but that was rejected too. That’s when he sought sanctuary.

“I’ve lived in the US almost eight years, my whole adulthood,” Lopez-Acabal said. “I’ve made a family here. What would I do in Guatemala, with the bad economic situation there and all the crime? Would I take my wife there, if she doesn’t know it at all? And why would I take my children there if they are US citizens?”

He’s especially concerned for his son Kevin, who has autism.

“He gets good care and medicine here. How would he live in Guatemala? It would be impossible.”

He added that the flood of tens of thousands of children crossing the border this summer, many of them fleeing Guatemala, made him more sure than ever that he couldn’t go back.

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As Lopez-Acabal was on his physical journey, the 250-odd members of University Presbyterian were on a journey of its own — -an ethical and spiritual one.

Pastor Eric Ledermann told ThinkProgress that after declaring themselves an “open and affirming” congregation to LGBT people 15 years, “We began a journey of, what does it look like to welcome the other? For some folks, [offering sanctuary] felt like a natural next step.” He said the congregants began asking each other: “Is this what God is calling us to do? How do we help guard people against oppressive systems?”

But the decision to receive Lopez-Acabal was not an easy or automatic one. Ledermann received an e-mail from a fellow pastor in late August asking if University Presbyterian could offer sanctuary. He took it to the “session” — -or council of church elders — -and cited the biblical passage from Matthew 25 that commands welcoming the stranger, as well as another passage about welcoming “the alien among us.”

Ledermann said he told the session: “As your pastor and as a Christian, I’m struggling with this.” After a half hour of conversation, one of the elders proposed they offer sanctuary, saying, “I feel like God is knocking on our door.” The vote was not unanimous, and Ledermann estimates that support within the congregation is between 70 and 80 percent.

I feel like God is knocking on our door.

The reaction from the surrounding community has been a similar mix of opposition and support. Ledermann said right after announcing sanctuary, he started receiving angry and even threatening phone calls and letters every day, all of which he reported to the police. One caller warned that hundreds of people were coming from all over the country to protest outside the church if they didn’t change their position. But when the day came, no one showed up. Overall, Ledermann said, the reaction has been milder than he expected.

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Internally, after the sanctuary decision was formally announced, members of the congregation began signing up in an online spreadsheet to provide food, furniture, and companionship — -simply spending time with Lopez-Acabal so he’s not alone.

“That’s the piece we’re really struggling with right now,” said Ledermann. “People were hesitant to sign up because they don’t speak Spanish, but they don’t have to!” He cited concern for Lopez-Acabal’s mental health, saying: “Being in a church that you don’t know that well, all day long, by yourself, that can really mess with somebody.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, local resident Barb Moen and her granddaughter Brynn Egan sat with Lopez-Acabal in the church’s event room, trying to communicate across a considerable language barrier. On the table between them sat a Bible and an English-Spanish dictionary.

“My God says we’re all brothers and sisters. So I’m visiting my brother here,” Moen told ThinkProgress. “[Visiting] is an attempt to somehow say, ‘You’re not walking this road alone. I can’t understand it, because I’ll never have to go through it, but I can sit here and visit with you.’”

Moen said she spent her first visit teaching Lopez-Acabal to play the card game Uno. “He kept shouting ‘One!’ and we’d say, ‘It’s Uno, Luis!’ and he’d say, ‘I have to practice my English!’”  Her granddaughter Egan, who grew up in Montana and only recently moved to Arizona to attend community college, told ThinkProgress the experience of spending time with Lopez-Acabal has shifted her views on immigration.

“It’s kind of cool to see the other side of it, the people side,” she said. “It’s one thing to hear, ‘Another immigrant is being deported’ and seeing someone’s face, having them smile and laugh with you. It’s different.”

Moen predicts that the more churches offer sanctuary, the more minds will be changed through such interactions. “Every time you leave yourself open to a different way or another opinion,” she said, “you leave yourself open for the Spirit to do the work.”

Lopez-Acabal’s wife and children live in Mesa, only a few miles east of Tempe, but a world away culturally and economically. His daughter has visited him once since he took sanctuary, but his son isn’t able to. “Because of the autism, being in a strange place with strange people makes him anxious and even violent,” Lopez-Acabal explained.

If they come to get him, I will not be violent, but I will stand in the way.

Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, the church that spearheaded both the first sanctuary movement in the 1980s and its revival this year, is in the heart of a Latino neighborhood and physically closer to the realities of the border. In contrast, Tempe’s University Presbyterian is in a mainly white, affluent neighborhood near Arizona State’s campus. Arizona is infamous for its checkpoints, workplace and home raids and other forms of harsh enforcement of immigration law. But that enforcement is almost never carried out in places like this.

“If they did that in this neighborhood, which is predominantly white, suburban, man, they would be absolutely crucified,” said Ledermann. “But do that in a barrio in South Phoenix, nobody even knows it happened. Doesn’t make the news. It’s just sick.”

Lopez-Acabal is technically free to leave and go home at any time, and the local ICE has said publicly that they have no intention of enforcing his order of removal.

“But the problem is, he could be walking down the street in Mesa and if the police look at him and think something’s fishy, and stop him, they’ll call ICE and find he’s undocumented,” explained Ledermann. “So it depends on who answers the phone. They say they’re not deporting low-priority people, but that’s absolute bull.”

Snapping his fingers, he said, “The policies could change like that. Next thing you know, ICE could be knocking on his door saying, ‘We changed our mind. We’re going to deport you today.’”

The same is true for the policy of sanctuary itself, which exists in a grey zone that is more cultural than legal.

“Could ICE come get him here? Yes,” Ledermann said. “They tell their agents not to take action in sensitive areas like schools, hospitals and places of worship. But if they come to get him, I will not be violent, but I will stand in the way. If that means arrest that means arrest.”

The likelier scenario is a long wait. When President Obama announced he would delay ordering deportation relief for some undocumented people until after the November midterms, the new promised deadline became the end of this year.

“I pray that something will happen any day now,” said Ledermann. “The chances are, though, that this could go on for quite a while.” He’s currently planning a congregation-wide meeting in the coming weeks to talk about everything from why people migrate to how faith communities should respond to the immigration crisis.

Ledermann and some congregation members have been writing and calling the White House and the Department of Homeland Security every day urging an immediate executive action, as well as petitioning the local ICE office to grant Luis a stay of removal. They have so far received no response.

As for Lopez-Acabal, he will continue to wait and pray.

“I have faith in God that my case will be resolved so I can be by my family’s side,” he said. “I know that with God, nothing is impossible. That’s why I came to a church.”