Rosa Aurora Sabido-Valdivia sits on a retaining wall outside the United Methodist Church in Mancos, Colorado, on a pleasant July morning. Her feet barely brush the cement of the sidewalk, and she swings them a little as she talks—an endearing movement for a 53-year-old woman. She tells me what life used to be like, how she'd work all day as a church secretary then make tamales in her trailer home in the evenings, dancing to music while she cooked. On weekends, she'd pack the tamales into her 1995 Toyota Corolla wagon and drive all over southwest Colorado selling them. Now, sitting outside the church in Mancos, she seems to catch the eye of nearly everyone who walks or drives by. A blond woman in a Subaru slows down and waves. Rosa smiles and waves back.
But when a late-model pick-up with tinted windows pulls up to the curb and creeps toward the church, Rosa's face freezes. She pulls her feet over the retaining wall and plants them on the grassy lawn, preparing to bolt indoors. Then the window rolls down to reveal another friendly neighbor who wants to say hi, and Rosa exhales, letting her shoulders relax.
This is Rosa's life now: avoiding deportation by remaining on church grounds. Technically, no law prevents Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from walking onto the property to deport her, but ICE officers are instructed to avoid "sensitive" places. Even under the hardline policies of President Donald Trump—which resulted in a 25 percent increase in deportation arrests from 2016 to 2017—ICE officers largely avoid churches, mosques, and synagogues.
According to Reverend Noel Andersen of the Church World Service, the number of churches that have declared themselves sanctuaries has doubled since the 2016 elections, from 400 to 800. Until last July, however, those actually hosting immigrants were mostly in liberal cities like Denver or Portland, Oregon. The smallest was Las Cruces, New Mexico, population 98,000.
Mancos, on the other hand, is home to just 1,300 people. Most of the streets are unpaved, and ranchers sometimes drive their cattle right through the dust of downtown. Some 60 percent of voters in this county supported Trump.
Yet faced with the deportation of someone they know—a hardworking community member who speaks excellent English, owns her own home, and cares for her aging mother—Mancos has rallied. When Pastor Craig Paschal asked his congregants if they wanted their church to become a sanctuary last year, they said yes. Paschal initially considered it a symbolic gesture. He knew Rosa from bumping into her around town, but had never asked about her or anyone else's immigration status.
While Paschal says there's been some pushback against his congregation's decision to harbor Rosa, it's a minority. "I've had people who don't want their name associated with sanctuary come up to me on the street, thank me, and give me a small amount of cash for Rosa," he says. "In a small town, we just know each other. We aren't talking about strangers."
Rosa has lived in this corner of Colorado since she came here with her mother from Mexico City in 1991. Her mother and stepfather are naturalized citizens, and Rosa has tried for decades to become a permanent resident. A four-page history provided by her lawyer reads like a laundry list of attempts to follow the byzantine road to residency, but each path has been a dead end. Since 2008, when a 5 a.m. raid on her house led to the deportation of her nephew and cousin (Rosa was allowed to stay because of a medical issue), she has spent roughly $5,000 a year applying for an annual stay of removal that allows her to live and work in the United States legally, if impermanently.
But on May 19th, 2017, Rosa received notice that her application to stay had been denied. She panicked. By June 2nd, the United Methodist Church had approved her application for sanctuary. She'd informed her employer of her impending absence, bought food for her six dogs and two cats, explained the situation in Spanish to her 71-year-old mother, and thrown clothes, toiletries, and religious objects into her car.
The 18-mile drive to Mancos from her home in the town of Cortez was terrifying. She feared being pulled over and sent back to a country where she has no home or community. As she recalls the overwhelming emotions of her first night sleeping in the small "fellowship hall" behind the church, she begins to cry. She remembers lying in the bed that wasn't her own, both relieved to be safe and wracked with worry. "Even the pillow was different," she says, wiping away tears.
For her entire adult life, Rosa has felt like she lives in a cage. Her immigration status has meant she's unable to leave the U.S., visit her homeland, or make international pilgrimages with the Catholic parish she belongs to. "It's completely different, not being able to make decisions on how to manage your life and the places you want to go," she says.
Now, although she's grateful for the kindness she's been shown, she's even further restricted, in "a cage within a cage." For the past 45 days, her world has been confined to this wood-paneled building, the adobe chapel, a patch of grass, and a sliver of sky. When I ask what she misses most, she tells me about the wide-open skyscapes she used to marvel at when she'd drive around selling tamales. "Rainbows, sunsets, moonrise," she says. "That's what I miss a lot. The skies cannot be any bluer than in Colorado. And those millions of stars some nights. I mean millions that you can see...." Her voice drops to a whisper.
Sometimes, after midnight, when the town is asleep, Rosa pushes open the door of the fellowship hall and steps onto the dewy lawn. She looks up at the handful of stars she can see through the leaves of the cottonwoods, and prays that, one day, she'll be able to see more. Millions more.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine. It was first published online on April 20th, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members.