To say we are living in troubled times is an understatement. It’s easy to look back on history and say you would have recognized the warning signs and acted differently. Time seems to have softened the severity of toxic nationalism since 1945, and we are so self-assured that if it happened again, we would be ready to face it. But it’s happening right now across the United States, in my neighborhood and yours.
Jose Robles came to the United States in 2000 from Mexico. Since then, he has settled in Lakewood, Washington, south of Tacoma, and started a painting company with his brother. He has three daughters, the two of whom are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which enables them to defer action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit. His youngest daughter is a US citizen.
Jose has been fighting his deportation process for the last 8 years. In April of 2018, he and his brother were in a barbershop while it was being robbed; they were held at gunpoint and assaulted by the perpetrators, and thrown into the shop’s bathroom. Jose’s lawyer Sandy Restrepo believes that he can now be eligible for a U-1 visa for victims of violent crimes who cooperate with police. However, Lakewood officials have denied his application; of the 14 U-visa applications that have been received by the City Attorney so far in 2019, 50% have been denied.
By June 28, 2018, Jose and his family were desperate. He was scheduled to be deported for Mexico that day, a country he had not seen in nearly two decades. He decided to seek sanctuary in Lakewood’s Gethsemane Lutheran Church, whose members voted to become a sanctuary congregation in 2017. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lists places of worship as “sensitive locations,” along with schools and hospitals, and typically won’t enter.
Jose spent over a year living inside the walls of Gethsemane Lutheran Church. “I’m very happy that so many of my family are here,” he said in December. “The sad part is at the end of the day everyone will have to leave and then I’ll be here again by myself.” Jose hoped to repay the kindness of the church by lending a hand around the building. His U-visa application took several months to be prepared and submitted, but Lakewood Police refused to certify it; it took the signature of a Pierce County Attorney to get the application moving forward again.
Yesterday, Jose went outside for the first time in 384 days. He was afraid that by delaying meeting with ICE officials any longer, he would be seen as uncooperative and it would jeopardize his U-visa application process. Accompanied by his family and supporters, Jose addressed the crowd outside of the Department of Homeland Security building in Tukwila: “I’ve been a year in sanctuary and I need a doctor and medical attention that I’m not able to have while in sanctuary,” Jose said through a translator. After embracing his wife, Jose walked into the building. He did not come out again.
There is still hope for Jose Robles and his family. He knew that he would most likely be detained by ICE, but they have promised not to deport him immediately. Jose was granted a temporary stay by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in May, which expires at the end of this month. The 9th Circuit has until then to decide whether they will grant another stay that will last until Jose’s appeal is decided. U-visa applications typically take up to 5 years to be decided, but only take 4-6 months for someone in detention, says Jose’s attorney.
U-visas are important because they enable the victims of violent crimes to come forward and report crime more freely without fearing that it will lead to deportation. Judy Chen is the acting director of the Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “What happens is perpetrators of violence run free. What happens is people who commit violence learn they can target victims with impunity,” Judy told reporters. “What happens is survivors of abuse learn there’s nowhere to seek help, that there’s no one who will help them.”
As a nation, we are filled with hate and greed, and we are afraid. Afraid that if we welcome more people into our country, we are giving up a piece of our own future. We hide behind the mask of Christianity, the foundations of which preach opening your doors and providing sanctuary for those in need, of loving your neighbor as yourself. Last Christmas, Jose and his family watched a performance of the Nativity of Jesus at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, in which Mary and Joseph are traveling in a foreign land and turned away when seeking refuge. Jose’s story is unfortunately not unique – it’s happening across the country, from Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle to Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
The statue Liberty Enlightening the World has become a eternal symbol of the United States since it was dedicated in 1886. It sits in New York Harbor, where it can easily seen from Ellis Island where 12 million European immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1954. The poem inscribed on the statue’s base was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”