Rosa Sabido has been living inside a tiny Colorado church.

Finding refuge inside the United Methodist Church of Mancos since June 2, 2017, she is one of 40 known cases of undocumented immigrants living in churches across the country to avoid deportation.

It’s been a blur of waiting. A blur of sleeping. A blur of people stopping by to see how she was doing, to say how sorry they were that it had come to this.

Out in America, beyond the property line of a church that in effect had become her country, the decades-old debate over immigration reform was as loud and emotional as ever. President Trump was stepping up deportations and highlighting immigrants he described as rapists, murderers and gang members. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was giving an eight-hour speech calling young immigrants “courageous” and “patriotic” and speaking of their “divine spark.” Week after week brought more protests and accusations that both parties were using the issue for political gain while failing again to find a solution.

And all this time, Rosa was sealed off, watching the seasons change through the window — the end of spring, summer, fall, winter, and now almost spring again.

To avoid deportation Mexican immigrant Rosa Sabido, after 30 years of living in the US, found sanctuary within a small rural southwest Colorado community of long-time friends and a United Methodist Church congregation committed to giving her such sanctuary protection. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
To avoid deportation Mexican immigrant Rosa Sabido, after 30 years of living in the US, found sanctuary within a small rural southwest Colorado community of long-time friends and a United Methodist Church congregation committed to giving her such sanctuary protection. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Her life before the sanctuary

She was not a “dreamer,” one of the 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and now waiting for the courts to decide whether they can be deported. She was not one of the violent criminals often singled out by Trump, or one of the life-or-death cases that sometimes appear in the news. Rosa Sabido was one of the rest — roughly 10 million immigrants without proper legal documents living ordinary lives in America.

She was 53, unmarried and without children, and said she first came to the United States on a visitor visa in 1987 to see her mother and stepfather, both naturalized citizens who lived in Cortez, Colo. She said she traveled back and forth between Colorado and Mexico for a decade until immigration officials raised questions about her visa and told her to leave the country, at which point she crossed back into the United States illegally and settled into a quiet life in Cortez.

She lived in a small blue house next door to her parents at the edge of Mesa Verde National Park. She got a job as a secretary for the local Catholic parish. She made extra money selling homemade tamales out of her car, driving a route that took her to banks, pottery galleries, spas and offices around Cortez and the nearby town of Mancos, avoiding run-ins with immigration authorities until 2008, when she was arrested during a raid targeting relatives and released on the condition that she check in with the federal immigration office in Durango.

This was what she had been doing, checking in year after year, requesting stays of deportation and being granted them until last May, when she was notified that her latest request had been denied. Her next check-in happened to be scheduled for 10 days later.

Frantic, she called a lawyer, who told her she would probably be detained and deported if she went. She called her priest to see if he could do anything. She called a parishioner who did charity work, and that was when she first heard about a church that had recently voted to become what is known as a sanctuary.

Rosa Sabido has an emotional moment while reflecting on being confined to this one building for 9 months. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Rosa Sabido has an emotional moment while reflecting on being confined to this one building for 9 months. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The United Methodist Church of Mancos

“Standing with compassion,” was how the church’s pastor, Craig Paschal, had described the idea when his small congregation began discussing it not long after Trump was elected. He explained to them that being a sanctuary would mean taking in a family or person facing deportation, which the congregation was in a unique position to do since it was a long-standing federal policy to avoid enforcement actions in churches.

The vote was unanimous, even though people thought it unlikely that anyone would need them in the mostly white town of 1,700 people. A few months later, though, word came that there was a person in need, and it was the woman who drove around town selling tamales.

“They want to take Rosa,” the pastor recalled telling his wife.

Rosa realized that she knew the church. It was the small stone one with the nice garden where she always turned right on her sales route.

In Mancos, volunteers began hauling in a mattress and clearing out a classroom inside the church’s fellowship hall, preparing for what they imagined might be a stay of a few weeks.

Life inside the church

By summer, Rosa’s voice was hoarse from telling her story over and over to the steady stream of people stopping by, including the volunteers who slept on a mattress in the pastor’s office every night within reach of a folder scribbled with emergency instructions: “If ICE shows up, DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR UNLESS THEY HAVE A BENCH WARRANT SIGNED BY A JUDGE!”

By fall, she found herself standing with a group of people holding candles to mark her first 100 days in sanctuary, noticing that many of them were wearing T-shirts with a drawing of her face and the slogan “Rosa Belongs Here.”

By winter, she was realizing that her best hope for a solution — a bill to legalize her status that would have to pass in Congress — was exceedingly remote, and soon, Rosa stopped reading political news altogether.

Only once in more than nine months had she crossed the edge of the church property. She was talking on her cellphone, distracted. She moved a foot forward, and her toes touched the sidewalk in front of the church. “Rosa!” yelled a woman passing by, and she jerked her foot back onto the property.

Inside the United Methodist Church community building within her make-shift bedroom, Rosa Sabido slowly wakes up before her weekly yoga class (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Inside the United Methodist Church community building within her make-shift bedroom, Rosa Sabido slowly wakes up before her weekly yoga class (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Keeping busy

Almost every day brought some Rosa-related activity inside the fellowship hall. There were “Rosa Belongs Here” committee meetings. A woman was offering yoga classes with Rosa. A therapist offered her a “shamanic massage.” A man who had a stroke came by the church every week to pick up meals Rosa cooked for him, and swore his health was improving.

Rosa taught tamale-making classes. She led exercise classes.

“I’m telling you, Rosa Sabido has changed my life,” one of the women said, swinging a kettle bell. “It’s inspiring — it’s wonderful.”

“It’s very courageous what you’re doing,” one man said, and she thanked him.

People kept telling her things like that. She was brave. She was spiritual. “Our Rosa Parks,” was how the pastor’s wife described her, referring to the civil rights leader. “She is the perfect one. I think she was destined to be the person in this place, at this time.”

Pastor Craig’s own vision included what he called “the Mandela option,” after Nelson Mandela, who remained a political prisoner in South Africa for 27 years until he finally emerged as a national hero who brought down apartheid. Maybe Rosa would become a version of that. He had been reading about cloistered nuns, including one “who just lived in this room, and had all this wisdom and knowledge.”

“She became a saint and really changed the world,” he said. “Maybe this is like that.”

Night time

In her room, she felt most like herself when she was awake in the middle of the night. She could think in Spanish without translating. She could remember who she was. “Yes, I am Rosa,” she would say to herself. “Yes, I feel lonely. Yes, I’m in sanctuary.” She could think about whatever she wanted, about how at times she felt “like a pet, like the bear of the zoo everyone wants to come and see,” or “like the excuse” people needed to vent their anger about where the country was headed. She could wonder why one person had brought her a can of soup that was expired and why another had brought her a traditional Mexican blouse. She could feel guilty for questioning all the good will. She could feel selfish for being a burden to Pastor Craig, to her stepfather Roberto Obispo and to her sick mother, Blanca. She could remember all the things she loved. Like reading a biography of Edgar Allan Poe. Like her dogs, or driving from Cortez to Mancos with music blaring. Most of all, she could remember how she loved living in her blue house with all the possibilities of America outside her doorstep. She had always loved that feeling, ever since she was a little girl in Mexico City who told her teacher that what she wanted to be was not a doctor or a lawyer but a person who lived in America. She kept reminding herself that was why she was here.

Rosa Sabido, a Mexican national, looks out from the United Methodist Church community building at the birds on the bird feeder during her almost 9 month sanctuary experience in Mancos, Colorado (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Rosa Sabido, a Mexican national, looks out from the United Methodist Church community building at the birds on the bird feeder during her almost 9 month sanctuary experience in Mancos, Colorado (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Her family

Her stepfather would visit her sometimes. He tried to understand her. Roberto was worried about her. He thought she should go back to Mexico. Be with the rest of the family. He and Blanca could visit. Everyone loved her in Mexico.

He blamed himself for so much of what had happened. If only he and Blanca had married the day before Rosa’s 18th birthday instead of on Rosa’s 18th birthday, she might have been eligible for legal status as their minor child. Or if he had included Rosa and her brother on the petition he had filed for Blanca’s American residency, maybe a path would have opened.

“Just fill in the names,” Roberto said. “Just that.”

It all felt so arbitrary, he said. The only reason he was here legally was that his boss happened to put his name on a form back in 1987, when legislation granting amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants was taking effect.

And now Rosa was facing this predicament.

He knew she didn’t want to leave. She kept telling him that. She so deeply did not want to leave that she was willing to remain in the only place left for her to be in this country, the place she was now inside with the door locked.

It was Sunday evening, and soon people would be arriving for a potluck dinner. She needed more time alone. She needed to remember why she was here. She needed to remember her blue house and how it felt being there. She was forgetting. It would be a year soon. She would turn 54 soon. She was realizing that this sanctuary life could go on forever. She wondered what she was becoming in here.

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