Windows, Walls and Invisible Lines: Sandra Lopez

Portraits of life in sanctuary

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Sandra Lopez
Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

Sandra Lopez

I’ve been told by a number of people who’ve taken sanctuary inside the walls of religious institutions that their state of mind is very much tied to their ability to see outside. They say looking out windows reminds them of the life they once had and is one of the only ways of keeping tabs on a world that would otherwise pass them by. It’s as if seeing, in some small way, is still participating. It makes sense. When your entire world shrinks into a small indoor space for reasons beyond your control, every connection to the outside world takes on exaggerated importance.

But that doesn’t mean the view always has a positive impact. For those trapped inside to avoid deportation, the simple sight of kids kicking a ball down the street, someone walking their dog, a couple holding hands on an evening stroll or a runner disappearing over the hill at the end of the street can feel like a knife in the gut, a reminder of all that has been lost. But such observations are also the fuel for hope, the motivation to keep up the fight, a reminder of the ultimate goal — freedom.

It seems the interpretation of the view depends on the day. I’m told that the percentage of bad days grows the longer a person remains in sanctuary. I can’t imagine it could be any other way. Uncertainty always takes a toll, like a cancer patient living from scan to scan. Life is hard in the shadow of the other shoe.

Imagine day after day, month after month, and for some of these folks, year after year, jumping to the window every time the door-buzzer rings, a car door slams in the distance or an unexpected flash of light bounces off a wall at night. How draining it must be to float between boredom and the stress of being ever on guard against those who would come unannounced at any time of night or day to take you away from all you know, including your loved ones, even your small children.

It must feel like torture, but it’s better than the alternative.

In that context, any view is a constant reminder of the differences between voluntary confinement in a place of refuge and forced captivity in a cell somewhere. But make no mistake, voluntary or forced, surrendering your freedom is a difficult path no matter the number of windows or the square footage of the space that has become the container of your life.

Sandra Lopez spent 10 months and two days in Sanctuary in Carbondale, Colorado. Photo: Joel Dyer

For Sandra Lopez, the views have been limited and the space tight.

Sandra entered sanctuary on October 19, 2017. She avoided detention and deportation by taking refuge in the small basement of the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist Church parsonage in Carbondale, Colorado, where her 2-year-old daughter, Areli, and her 14-year-old son, Edwin, lived with her for the most part in the crowded space for 10 months and two days. It, no doubt, seemed much longer.

When I visited Sandra in June, she had been in sanctuary for seven months and had no idea when she might be able to leave. She was prepared to hold out for as long as necessary, but it was clear that her situation was growing more challenging with the passage of time.

On the first evening I arrived, I asked her to describe the chain of events that led her to take sanctuary in Carbondale. I had heard bits and pieces of her story before from various sources. But still, I didn’t foresee how traumatic it would be for Sandra to relive what had happened to her for my benefit.

As the photos above show, the stress and trauma of telling her story — the chain of events that led her to enter sanctuary — take a very real toll on Sandra Lopez. At one point she was squeezing her hands together so tightly they turned nearly white. Photos by Joel Dyer

As she recalled the frustrating details through her friend and interpreter Sophia Clark, who joined us, the post-traumatic stress that Sandra was experiencing physically transformed her before my eyes. At one point she was squeezing her hands together so tightly they turned white, and for nearly two hours, her smile was replaced by a series of haunting facial expressions that channeled confusion, frustration, anger and immense grief. Every so often she’d wipe the tears from her eyes without looking up from the fixed point on the floor where her gaze remained for the most part. In the end there was just silence and a wide-eyed, pain-filled stare at the floor that said more than anything I could ever write.

Most of us, because of where we were born and the color of our skin, are immune to the kind of senseless injustice that has been heaped upon Sandra and her family. How can it be in this day and age that where we pulled our first breath is still the largest determining factor in our ability to realize our dreams, no matter how modest?

In order to make a place for Sandra to take sanctuary, the basement of the Two Rivers Universalist Church parsonage in Carbondale, Colorado, had to be finished. It is a small space and crowded when the children are all there, but Sandra is very appreciative of the support the community has shown to her and her family. Without the protection afforded her by this tiny room, She very likely would have been deported and torn away from her children. Photo: Joel Dyer

Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1975, the 42-year-old mother of three — Areli, Edwin, and Alex, 20, all U.S. Citizens — says she has fond memories of her childhood, particularly of her mother. She says life was hard, but she loved her family and always had dreams of a better life someday.

When she was 22, the man who would become her husband persuaded her to go to the U.S.

“My husband invited me to come here. He convinced me because he told me over here was good work and good opportunities, and we had so many dreams at that time. We were also trying to escape poverty, violence and a very corrupt government, and we wanted to live somewhere that we could buy a house and have a nice home for our children,” she says.

Her husband had family in Colorado so that was always the destination, but as is the case with so many who follow their dreams north, it would not be an easy journey.

They paid a guide to bring them across the border, but they ended up in the middle of nowhere outside of El Paso, Texas, with a guide in no condition to lead them farther. Even then, at age 22, Sandra’s leadership and determination was on exhibit.

“The man who brought us over was very drunk, and he was not in a safe condition to make the journey, and we were in a group of about 16 people, and I decided that I would rather stay in the desert than risk my life going with this man, and so I said this and told the group, and so as a group, we decided to stay the night in the desert rather than go any further with this man.”

Making such a decision in that circumstance was neither easy nor safe for many reasons.

Back in 2001, I was researching the increasing death rate of migrants crossing the border between Mexico and Southern California as a result of the 60-mile-long border fence the Clinton administration had built. The corrugated metal fence forced migrants into the more dangerous mountain and desert corridors. While crossing the border illegally myself on a few occasions, I learned that a couple of the reasons so many people were dying during the crossing was either because they would fall behind their group and the guides would leave them, or because someone would challenge a guide’s decision, which likewise would get them abandoned in the middle of nowhere, often without food, water or any idea where to go.

It was a bold thing Sandra did that night in the desert, but under the circumstances, she may have saved some lives.

After that, she says, “We were walking for about a day and a half. We didn’t have water, we didn’t have food, and some people didn’t even have shoes. I had shoes, but they were getting destroyed; your shoes just get destroyed walking through the desert.”

Areli wanted ribbons in her hair and what mother could refuse such a request? Sandra says her daughter cried and wouldn’t eat for the first two weeks after moving into sanctuary. But She eventually adjusted. Photo Joel Dyer

Despite the perils, the couple eventually made it to Colorado, where their eldest son, Alex, was born. After a time, Sandra’s mother got sick and the family decided to return to Mexico to help her out for a few months. They also wanted to get officially married, so the return trip had a couple of purposes.

After Sandra’s mom had recovered, they came back to Colorado. By 2010, the family had been living peacefully and quietly in the U.S. for 12 years. And according to Sandra, all was good. She was busy working the jobs so often filled by migrants, cleaning homes and hotel rooms. And her family had grown with the addition of her second son, Edwin.

But that same year, Sandra’s life would be turned upside down all because of a mistaken two-second phone call and a racist law that has since been repealed.

It was in the evening after supper and the kids were in their bedroom. Sandra and her husband began having an argument, which she describes as “just a regular argument that anyone might have.”

One of the kids, hearing them, picked up the phone in the bedroom and dialed 911. The child quickly hung up the phone not realizing the call had even gone through.

Sandra says, “The kids were doing what they think is right, always. The kids in school, they’re taught to call 911. So, they were just doing what they had been taught.”

A few minutes later the argument was over and all was back to normal.

Not knowing about the call, Sandra and her husband were surprised later in the evening when the police showed up at the door of their home in Silt, Colorado.

What happened next would change the family’s life from then until now.

“The police officer came in our house, and he was getting really frustrated,” Sandra says. “He was asking my husband questions, and my husband was refusing to answer any of the questions. So, he was getting really annoyed. Then he started asking me questions and he said, ‘What happened here?’ And I said, ‘Nothing. We just had an argument, and it’s an argument we resolved ourselves, just like any other couple.’ And the police officer insisted and said, ‘No, this is domestic violence.’

“Then, seeing that I wasn’t going to accuse my husband of violence and my husband wasn’t accusing me either, the officer asked me, ‘Do you have a Colorado ID?’ And I said, ‘A Colorado ID? No, I don’t have one.’

“He asked me, ‘Are you sure you don’t have an ID?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And then his behavior changed toward me. He started yelling at me and said, ‘You’re under arrest.’

“So, the motivation for the arrest was because I couldn’t provide an ID. My husband was saying to the officer, ‘Arrest me. Don’t take my wife. Take me instead.’ And the officer took me out to the truck in handcuffs, took all my information, and I was arrested around 9 [p.m.] Several hours later, around midnight, I received a call from ICE, so they had already reported me to ICE.”

Sandra had to appear in court, where she was officially charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief and domestic violence. She says that over the next week, the police repeatedly attempted to get her husband to file some kind of complaint against her, which he refused to do, telling them over and over that she hadn’t done anything wrong and he wanted her to come home. He eventually became so frustrated and angry that he went to the District Attorney and explained what had happened.

The DA immediately agreed that Sandra had been wrongly arrested and said he would drop the charges.

“So, then I had my second court [appearance],” Sandra says. “It had been about two weeks. The judge dropped my charges, and said, ‘You were wrongfully arrested and I’m really sorry this happened, but unfortunately, you’re now in the hands of immigration, and I wish you luck.’ That’s all he said to me, that he wished me luck.

“But at that point, I was in the immigration system. There was nothing I could do. I had to hire a lawyer.”

Sandra Lopez with her 2-year-old daughter, Areli. Sandra says because her original attorney misplaced and forgot about her case file, she was called two months later than she should have been and told she had only 48 hours to pack and leave the country, including leaving behind her three children who are all U.S. citizens. Photo: Joel Dyer

So even though the court system admitted that Sandra’s legal problems were brought on by a child mistakenly dialing 911 and then hanging up, coupled with a cop deciding to enforce Colorado’s racist SB-90 law, better known as the “show me your papers” law, the damage was done.

After 12 years of being a good mother and neighbor, Sandra’s life was suddenly hanging by a thread. She could have run. She could have given up, but instead she eventually decided that despite her precarious legal status she would fight back, not only for herself but also for others who, like her, had been targeted by an unfair and racist law.

In 2012, Sandra became an immigration activist and leader but she doesn’t think of it so much as a choice. “I have been a leader,” she says. “But this same system that is so wrong and so unjust is what forces us to become leaders. You aren’t born a leader, you become a leader.

“I fell into deportation [proceedings] because of the law SB-90 in Colorado. The ‘show me your papers’ law. So, myself, along with other mothers who have been detained under this unfair law, we got together and we went to the capital in Denver. We told our stories. We told them the truth of what was happening, of what the police were doing with us. And all of us were mothers who were in the system because of something so insignificant, like not coming to a complete stop or crossing a line [on the road] or having a light [on our car] go out or being wrongly accused of something.

“We went to the capital, and we lobbied, and we told our stories, and one of the senators, after hearing my story, used my story on the senate floor. Because of our advocacy, that law was repealed.”

Below: Sandra’s son Edwin, 14, watches over a yard sale at the parsonage to raise money in support his family while his mom is in sanctuary. Photo: Joel Dyer

The repeal of SB-90 in March 2013 was a stunning victory for immigrant rights’ groups and the victims of the bill like Sandra, who had worked so hard to see it overturned. But Sandra’s celebration would be short-lived.

“Unfortunately,” she says, “I hired a very bad lawyer who represented me very poorly and lost my case.”

Sandra’s low opinion regarding the quality of her original legal representation is more than just sour grapes over the outcome of her case. It was clear that having to even describe what happened to her immigration case between 2010 and 2014 still strikes a raw nerve, and understandably so.

“I got a call from [my attorney’s] secretary saying, ‘We lost your case, and you have to leave the country in two days.’ So I said to them, ‘What? You think I’m going to leave the country in two days and prepare everything and leave my children? What are you talking about and what have you been doing all this time? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’ And they said, ‘We’re sorry. We forgot about your file, it was on our desk for two months and we forgot about it.’

Sandra says she wanted to change attorneys right then but it wasn’t possible. She knew that she couldn’t find another attorney in two days and that it would take at least a month for new counsel to become familiar enough with her case to go into a hearing and represent her.

“So, I had to stay with them, for the immediate future, to appeal my case,” she told me. “But of course, as a result of this lawyer’s bad work, I ended up with orders of deportation. When I found out I had this order of deportation, I said, ‘Well, great. I do not want to work with you anymore, I’m getting a different lawyer.’ So, I hired a different lawyer to better represent me, and that lawyer has been able to keep me in the country until now with a stay of removal every year.”

Since 2014, Sandra has gone to an annual ICE check-in, where she is fingerprinted and they do a background check to verify she hasn’t broken any laws before granting her a one year stay of removal. But everything changed when the Trump administration came into power.

On October 18, 2017, Sandra got the bad news, her annual stay had been denied.

“My lawyer called me that day very worried. He told me, ‘I need to speak with you and your husband.’ We went into the office, and I could see in his face that he was very concerned. I said, ‘What happened? Did they deny my stay?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’

“Of course, I was very sad and crying a lot, and he asked, ‘What are you going to do?’

“I had an [ICE] check-in the next day, so I found out my stay was denied the day before my check-in. I said to the lawyer, ‘Be honest with me, what’s going to happen?’ And he said, ‘As your lawyer, I can’t advise you not to go, but if you go, there’s a high probability that you will be arrested, and maybe we can do something to get you out of detention or maybe you will be deported to your country.’

“I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to the detention center just because I don’t have a paper. It’s not fair that just because I don’t have a legal paper that I should be incarcerated, and I’m going to see whatever other opportunities that I might find, and I’m going to take sanctuary.’

“I said, ‘I’m not going to be separated from my children. And the lawyer said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘100 percent, any sacrifice for my children is worth it.’

“The next day I was supposed to present myself at 9 a.m. with ICE, and so that was the time that I was supposed to be, again, put into this unjust system,” she continues. “So, instead of going with them, I came here, into sanctuary.

“I remember the night before was incredibly difficult for me and my husband. I couldn’t sleep. My eyes were wide open, I was in shock, my mind was blank, and I just didn’t want day to break.

“At 6 a.m. I had to get up and wake up my son and get him ready for school, and that was the last day that I got my son ready for school in our home. I didn’t want him to see how upset I was, I was just trying to keep my lips sealed. I had to turn my back so he didn’t see I was crying, and I just gave him a huge hug and told him that I loved him very much.

“But you know, kids aren’t stupid, and he said, ‘What’s wrong, mom?’ I said, ‘Nothing, just give me a hug, and I love you,’ and he told me he loved me.

“After he went to school. I started trying to get ready, and I was putting things into a suitcase, some clothes, and I decided that I would be bringing my daughter with me, and I threw her clothes into the suitcase. I was also working and I didn’t want to just throw away my job. So I went to my work that morning, and said, ‘I’m not going to be able to come into work for a while. I have a huge emergency, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take to resolve.’

“I left behind not only my job but my home, my role as a parent, my role as a wife, but I did that so I will not be separated from my children.”

While taking sanctuary has allowed Sandra to remain in this country with her children, it has still diminished her role as a parent.

Sandra’s children have always been her top priority and she has tried to make their lives as normal as possible even while in sanctuary. Photo Joel Dyer

She said the hardest thing about sanctuary is, “Not being able to take my son to the doctor; not being able to take my kids to school; not being able to visit them in their activities and not being able to be a part of their schoolwork. I can’t be a part of their lives as an active, 100-percent parent. I feel like I’m a 20-percent parent right now.”

Sanctuary has also taken a financial toll. Sandra says she has spent more than $38,000 so far on legal fees trying to gain status that would allow her to live with her family without the constant fear of deportation. That’s a lot of money for someone cleaning houses, and now she’s lost that income.

After entering sanctuary, her oldest son, Alex, had to drop out of Colorado Mesa University, where the 20-year-old had been attending classes and move back home, because she can no longer financially help support him.

While I was with her in Carbondale, Sandra was preparing for a yard sale, where donated items would be sold to help raise money for her legal expenses. She also draws and sells her art online to help with expenses. It is a meager existence made possible by a very supportive community.

Life in sanctuary was hard for Sandra. She received death threats on her phone and Facebook page, and it’s always a challenge to find a private place to reflect or be sad and cry. Even so, she is incredibly appreciative of all those who have sacrificed to make it possible for her to remain with her children.

She said, “It means a lot for me. I know I’m not alone, and my whole community is supporting me. I didn’t have any other options. I needed a place to continue fighting for myself, my kids. I just want the best for my kids, and whatever sacrifices I have to make for them it’s worth it, because I don’t need a piece of legal paper to be a mom for them.”

Sandra sells her drawings online to help support her family and raise money for her sizable legal fees ($38,000 to date). This piece is titled “Freedom to Dream.” Photo: Joel Dyer

Sandra was always willing to continue in public sanctuary for as long as it might take, not only for herself and her family, but to fight for all the people who are being persecuted by what she sees as an unfair system designed to exploit immigrants in many ways.

As for what she would like for people to know about her, Sandra says it’s simple. “I am a public person who is raising their voice against a totally unjust system. I am a mother who is working hard to raise her kids, who only wants to be free and have a regular life with her husband and kids, and who has worked hard her whole life, giving back to people. I am someone who is honest, a hard worker, and just a mother who wants peace and liberty here with her kids. Thanks to my community, I am strong.”

Editor’s Note: In August 2018, a Supreme Court ruling opened a potential new path for Sandra Lopez to pursue legal status. In a prepared statement she said, “My attorneys have talked with ICE, and it confirmed that I am not a priority for removal at this time. We continue to seek a positive resolution to my case through the court system and are awaiting a decision from the Board of Immigration Appeals.”

As a result of no longer being a priority for deportation, Sandra decided to take ICE at its word. On August 21, she left sanctuary and has returned to her home and family while she continues her legal battle. We wish her well.

To view other essays in this series or to learn more about the Windows, Walls and Invisible Lines project click below:

Project overview

Rosa Sabido

Araceli Velasquez

Ingrid Encalada Latorre

 

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Women of Resolution

Sunday, Oct. 14, 2-4 p.m.

eTown Hall (1535 Spruce St., Boulder)

Motus Theater is collaborating with Boulder Weekly to bring to the stage Women of Resolution, based on interviews of the four Colorado women forced to seek sanctuary in their fight for immigration justice, and to stay with their families. Their stories will be read by  members of the Colorado State Legislature — including Reps. Jonathan Singer, Leslie Herod and Joseph Salazar — followed by a poetic response from national slam poet winner Dominique Christina, and a panel of sanctuary movement and faith leaders including Jeanette Vizguerra.

Tickets to the live performance are on sale now at etown.org. You can also join sanctuary leaders including Ingrid Encalada Latorre to watch the free livestream at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boulder (5001 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder). Or contact Motus to get the livestream link and host your own watch party: info@motustheater.org

More information at motustheater.org/event/undocuamerica-women-of-resolution.