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“They Repress Us Because We’re Poor”: Immigrant Rights Activist Speaks from Sanctuary in Colorado

StoryFebruary 02, 2018
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As President Trump continues his crackdown on immigrant communities, a growing number of people are taking sanctuary in churches across the country to avoid deportation. A new report called “Sanctuary in the Age of Trump” says more people are now taking sanctuary than at any time in the United States since the 1980s. We end today’s show in Colorado, speaking to another immigrant rights leader, Sandra Lopez, who has taken sanctuary at the parsonage of the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist church in Carbondale, Colorado. She is now facing deportation to Mexico after living in Colorado for 17 years. She’s a mother of three U.S.-born children: Alex, Edwin and Areli.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As President Trump continues his crackdown on immigrant communities, a growing number of immigrants are taking sanctuary in churches across the country to avoid deportation. A new report called “Sanctuary in the Age of Trump” says more people are now taking sanctuary than at any time in the United States since the ’80s.

We end today’s show in Colorado, where we hear from another immigrant rights leader who has taken sanctuary: Sandra Lopez, now facing deportation to Mexico after living in Colorado for 17 years, mother of three U.S. citizen children—Alex, Edwin and Areli. This is Sandra Lopez speaking to supporters who marched to the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist Church in Carbondale, Colorado, as part of their Women’s March just a week ago.

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] We are all defenders of human rights. And I think that human dignity is not based on one legal paper. I have lost the fear of lifting up my voice. Why? Because I’m a human being. I have feelings, just like you. I love my children, just like you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, a few weeks ago, I visited Sandra Lopez at the parsonage of the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist Church in Carbondale, Colorado. I began by asking her why she came to the United States 17 years ago.

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Well, I came to the United States with my husband. We had many dreams. Of course, I was running from a corrupt government, a lot of poverty and violence. We came with many dreams. We are poor, honest, hard-working people, and we have dreams, dreams of getting ahead. But, unfortunately, being a migrant in this country holds a very high price, and we are unjustly persecuted, oftentimes unjustly just because we don’t have a legal document, legal papers, here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: How old were you when you came to the United States?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] I was about 24 years old, and it was very dangerous. I tried to cross the border with my husband. The person who was going to take us across was totally drunk, and it was obvious. I told my husband, “How are we going to cross with this man? He’s falling down, he’s so drunk. It’s very dangerous. We might be going along the road with him and suffer a bad accident and die.” And so, of course, I refused. I absolutely refused. We were a large group, about 13 of us. We started talking, analyzing the situation. And we refused. We agreed not to cross the border with him. And I told him, I told this coyote, “Please, leave us in the desert. I would rather be sleeping in the desert than risking my life with you. If you are going to take me across, come in a sound state of mind.”

Well, we then slept all night in the desert. We went about a day and a half with no water. We were hungry. We saw scorpions going by near where we were. We even saw a snake. And we didn’t sleep all night, out of fear. But then the coyote came back in a good state of mind, and we were able to cross.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did you end up here in Carbondale?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Now, living in Carbondale, I’m living with a lot of fear, a lot of fear because I’m under the shadow of fear. I’m being persecuted because I don’t have papers. What they don’t understand is that my best legal papers are being a mother. I don’t need a legal document to be a mother, to be able to defend my love for my children. I give everything for them. I give my life for them, everything for my children, my family. And any sacrifice that I might make for them—anything—it’s going to be worthwhile, because, for me, the material things don’t make sense. Money doesn’t make sense. For me, what makes sense is my role, giving myself over to them as in my role as a mother. It is such a beautiful career to be a mother, to be a father. And now I’m facing the threat of separation, and that has really hurt my feelings, wounded my heart.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell me about your children. How old are they? What are their names? Where are they living now?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Well, my son Alex is 19 years old. He just turned 19 last week here in sanctuary. He studies. He’s at the university in Grand Junction. And he got a job to be able to pay for school, because, well, I was supporting him with his studies, but I can’t do so anymore. I left my job, my home, my children, my home, my household, where I, a mother, I left it all to be able to be with them here for this moment, keeping away from deportation.

I also have a son Edwin Gonzalez. He is in middle school in Riverside Newcastle, and he stays here with me in sanctuary. He has school Monday through Thursday. He stays with me Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and it makes me so happy. My son Alex comes and visits at times, but he can’t be visiting me all the time, because he’s studying and working at the same time. He’s studying mechanics at the university of Grand Junction.

And I had to bring my daughter. She turned 2 years old here in sanctuary, and we had a small birthday celebration for her. I had to bring her with me. It’s very difficult to be have to bring just my daughter with me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide Edwin, your 13-year-old, would not come with you, stay with your husband, and Areli, your 2-year-old would come?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Well, it’s been a very difficult decision. It was October 19th. That was the last day that I got my son up and got him ready for school. As his mother, I gave him a big hug, and I cried a lot. When I gave him a hug, I told him, “My son, I love you very much.” He gave me a hug, too. And I said goodbye. But I didn’t want him to see me crying, so I turned my back so that he could not see just how sad I looked. Well, that was the last day that I got him ready and sent him off to school.

My son Edwin is 13 years old. I decided that he should stay with his father because there’s so many changes for the children. It’s an enormous change to him, a psychological harm that they cause our children. This is a system that separates families. That is the real hardship. Separation causes permanent damage, for a lifetime. This is a system that causes harm to one’s heart.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me what happened in 2010, your first interaction with police and ICE, what put you on their radar?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Well, you can imagine, it was the saddest day of my life. My husband and I had a small argument. My child—well, I’ve taught them to dial 911, and so my 4-year-old dialed 911 and then hung up. And then the police came and asked what was happening. And we said, “Nothing. Nothing’s happening.” And the police officer was asking questions. My husband didn’t answer any of the questions. Neither did I. My husband did not accuse me, and I did not accuse him. It was a simple argument that a couple could work out at any moment.

When the officer asked me if I had a Colorado ID, I said, “No, I don’t. I don’t have a Colorado ID.” And he immediately changed his behavior toward me. He started shouting at me, and he ordered that I be arrested. He put the handcuffs on me. And my husband said, “What can I do for my wife?” The police officer responded, “You cannot do absolutely anything.” And the officer immediately turned me over to ICE that same night.

That same night, in the early morning hours, I was interviewed by an ICE agent by telephone. So I had my interview with ICE. They had charges against me. They took me in on domestic violence charges. My husband was so indignant about that accusation. He spoke with the prosecutor. He spoke with him quite a bit. And the prosecutor told him, “Don’t worry. I have studied your wife’s case very carefully, and we’re going to drop the charges.” So they dropped the domestic violence charges that they had against me. And the judge told me, when I was standing before him, “I hope, Sandra, that immigration will be compassionate with you.” And I said, “Thank you, Judge.” He knew the system I was facing. It’s an unjust system, an unjust system that is separating many families.

As a leader, I invite you that we should never lose our dignity to defend our human rights. Let us not let them divide us, separate us from our children. Life is so short that you can lose it in a second. We shouldn’t be repressed. They repress us just because we’re poor. They think that there are laws that are only for the poor people like me. But I have dignity, and I lift up my voice and say, “Here I am. I am an honest, hard-working immigrant, raising my voice for those 11 million immigrants, those of us who have come here to work, who have come here with dreams of getting ahead. And we have never lost that dignity of defending our human rights, because we love our children, we love being free and having peace and freedom.” But now we are persecuted by an unjust system.

AMY GOODMAN: Right before you came into sanctuary, you were going to have to report, as you did every year, to ICE. What led you to believe that this time would be different?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Well, I had my ICE appointment every year. The way they worked, every year I had to sign a paper, according to which I could not leave the United States. It’s so illogical to sign something like that.

Now, a few days before October 19th of last year, I was denied my stay, which would have allowed me to remain in the United States. When my attorney gave me the news, I knew what this meant. Imagine, on October 19th last year, I had my appointment with ICE at 9:30. One day before, my lawyer called me, and, very concerned, he said, “Look at the situation.” And I said, “You know what? I know the risk. If they deny my stay, I’m going to be arrested. I’m going to be put in that unjust system. I will likely have to pay a bond of $5,000 to $7,000 to spend even more money on the system.” I’ve already paid about $28,000 for the system. I’ve tried to do everything possible to be able to be legal, and I’ve not been able to do so.

I wasn’t willing to be arrested, because they’re uprooting me from my home, from my children, from my life, from my future. How am I going to want to go into such a situation, as if nothing were happening? No. I made the valiant decision to go into sanctuary, to opt for sanctuary. It’s not an easy decision. And I am here avoiding deportation so that I can be with my children.

AMY GOODMAN: Your three children are U.S. citizens?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Yes, my children are citizens. My three children are citizens. I have made my life with my husband, a whole life made here in the United States—my dreams, my illusions, everything made here.

But it is very regrettable to only work for other people when you come into the system, because it causes great harm psychologically and economically. It’s true. I raise up my voice, and I say that we are persecuted. We are a huge business for ICE. All of us immigrants are big business for ICE. Why? Because we pay a lot of money. They sell us a very expensive dream, buying time and time, and that’s paying thousands and thousands of dollars. It’s money that you just throw into the trash can.

And I’m here showing my face and saying, “Be compassionate. Change those laws, those unjust laws. What is that a beautiful story behind the Statue of Liberty worth?” The whole sanctuary movement, we are appealing to that history, the history behind the Statue of Liberty. What liberty? Where am I? I’m in sanctuary awaiting deportation, after having paid thousands and thousands of dollars working just for others as a slave. Is that liberty? No. It’s time. It’s enough. Let us raise up our voices, defend our dignity and say, “Here we are. Change that unjust law.”

AMY GOODMAN: We have visited other people in sanctuary here in Colorado. At the Unitarian Church in Denver, Arturo Hernández and Jeanette Vizguerra. A what’s called a private bill was introduced and passed by Congressman Jared Polis to protect them, and they came out of sanctuary. Ingrid Latorre also was in sanctuary. Can you talk about what their experience meant for you?

SANDRA LOPEZ: [translated] Well, imagine. I’ve had contact with them—with Jeanette, Ingrid, Rosa, Rosselli—but never with Arturo. But believe me, that each case of ours, of those of us who opt for sanctuary, well, we have a very strong connection by Skype. We talk about our respective histories, our experiences, and we’ve learned a great deal from one another, because, believe me, being a leader carries a high price. We talk about strategies: What are we going to do? What is our next step? Because we always need to have strategies to be able to get ahead, defending our dignity as human beings, putting these strategies together so as to struggle for our dignity as human beings, to be able to get ahead.

Believe me, that a six-month stay, as Ingrid got, or that private bond that was given to Jeanette and that was given to Arturo, that’s just something really quite insignificant. It’s practically nothing. What they’re offering you for all of this pain, all of this work, all of this anguish that we immigrants are experiencing here, it’s nothing, really, because we go through so much, we experience so much stress here. “Is this the American dream?” I ask myself.

How many feel ashamed of what they do? I know that there are many beautiful people who feel shameful about how we’re treated. Believe me, there are very nice people with beautiful hearts, who value us, who help us and who are here supporting us. Those are the people who we need to have around us. And being a leader is not easy because they want to separate those leaders. But we are in contact. We are unified.

I’m very upset about what happened to Ingrid’s husband. It really shook me, and it shook sanctuary, because this is an attack on sanctuary. And it affects me as a mother and as a wife and as a Ingrid’s friend. It has really affected us a great deal. But I want to tell you, Ingrid, you’re not alone. You have all of us in sanctuary, all of your community, supporting Ingrid’s husband. And it is an attack. They want to weaken us. They want to instill fear and separate us from one another.

But no, we will have to be more astute. We’ll have to organize ideas and move forward, get out of the shadow of fear and raise up our voices, because, as the saying goes, divide and conquer. But no, we are going to be strong and unified, and we are going to defend our dignity and defend sanctuary. This is my personal opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Sandra Lopez, who sought sanctuary in a Unitarian parsonage in Carbondale, Colorado. She is still there. I spoke to her on January 13th, only two days after ICE agents arrested the husband of another Colorado immigrants’ rights leader who’s in sanctuary, Ingrid Latorre. Her husband, Eliseo Jurado, was arrested by six ICE agents while he was shopping at Safeway, in what many consider a targeted retaliation against the sanctuary movement.

Well, special thanks to Laurel Smith, Sophia Clark, Denis Moynihan and Charlie Roberts.

And that does it for our show. Happy birthday to Hugh Gran! Democracy Now! is hiring a full-time news fellow. Submit your application by February 5th to

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