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Keep Nelson Home: A Collective Fight Against Inhumanity

On November 30, 2017, Nelson Pinos, an Ecuadorian immigrant who entered the U.S. without documentation 26 years ago, claimed sanctuary in the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church. He was avoiding a deportation order that would have forced him to return to Ecuador, separating him from his family. Over 300 days have passed since then, yet Pinos still remains unable to leave the church and return to his ordinary life.

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Pinos, 48, was born in Ecuador’s Canar Province to a poor family that made its living from a small piece of land and a few cattle. “A homeless person in New Haven is still much better off than a poor person in Ecuador,” Pinos told The Politic in an interview.

As a child, there were no shoes for Pinos to wear to walk to school. Breakfast consisted only of plain rice. If he and his family members were lucky, they would have meat once a week.

From a young age, Pinos and his brothers sold newspapers to buy their own school supplies. He had to quit high school to find a job to support his family. But despite his efforts, it was still impossible to for him to find stable employment during Ecuador’s economic crisis in the 1980s.

“When you are a young person and you see no future, you have to leave home and seek a better life, even if it’s hard,” Pinos said.

At age 22, determined to seek a better future, he decided to leave Ecuador and move to the United States, where his brother-in-law already lived. He knew that it would be impossible for him to get into the U.S. legally, so he hired a smuggler to arrange his illegal entry for 7,500 dollars.

In 1992, he boarded a flight to Panama, then to Guatemala, then to Mexico. From Mexico, he walked across the U.S. border into California, moving to San Diego and eventually to New York.

But simply entering the U.S. did not mean an easier life. In 1993, while Pinos was staying with his brother-in-law in Minneapolis, he was briefly detained by immigration officials. Pinos remembers that upon his release, he was told that he would receive paperwork, but did not know what the paperwork concerned because he did not speak English.

According to Pinos, he and his brother-in-law never received instructions to show up at an immigration court. “ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] tells us that we should have known about the court date because someone apparently signed it to say they received it. But that’s just not true because we never got it,” Pinos claimed. Because he missed the court date, an order for Pinos’ deportation was eventually issued in 1997.

Unaware of the order, Pinos settled in New York. He got a job as a dishwasher, which paid 180 dollars for a 40-hour workweek. He sent the money he earned to Ecuador to support his family. In 1999, after spending seven years in New York, he moved to New Haven and got a job at a manufacturing company. Eventually, he began a family of his own and became a father of two daughters and a son.

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Determined to fix his undocumented status for good, Pinos went to his first check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Hartford in July 2017, after finding his current lawyer. There, the officials apparently told Pinos: “You either submit something, or you go back home.” He was given a month to prepare the paperwork.

One month later, in August 2017, Pinos and his lawyer submitted paperwork to request a repeal of the deportation order. However, in less than a week, his request was rejected. This was a shock to Pinos and his lawyer; they had believed there was no way his case could have been fully reviewed in such a short time.

“When we asked them why they had not taken more time to look over the documents, they just responded, ‘The current administration doesn’t like to waste time,’” Pinos said.

In September 2017, during a check-in with ICE, Pinos was told to bring a one-way ticket to Ecuador by November 2 and leave by November 30.

Alarmed by the prospect of Pinos having to leave his family, his supporters tried to find a solution to keep him in the U.S. Pinos and his lawyer filed a request for a temporary stay so that he could avoid deportation while an immigration court reviewed his case. But ICE rejected it.

So on November 30, the day Pinos had no other choice but to go back to Ecuador, he decided to claim sanctuary in the United and First Methodist Church as a last resort to avoid deportation.

According to Pinos, he was initially fully intent on following the deportation order. But he changed his mind when his lawyers told him that if he left, he would probably never be able to live with his family again in the U.S.

After more than ten months in sanctuary, the mental stress can be overbearing for Pinos.“The hardest thing has been not being able to spend time with my family,” Pinos told The Politic. He recalled how, during weekends at a happier time, he and his family would go to the farms and orchards for apple-picking. During the summer, they would go to Disneyland together.

“It’s hard when I keep having to tell my kids about how I can’t go anywhere together with them.” Pinos said. “Especially my son, who always asks me why he has to go home while I have to stay at the church.”

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Pinos is the second person to claim sanctuary in First and Summerfield United Methodist Church. The church uses its unique position as a ICE-designated “sensitive site” to protect people facing deportation. It previously housed Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez, also an Ecuadorian immigrant, who was granted a temporary stay in November 2017 after 105 days in the church.

According to the church’s pastor, Vicki Flippin, providing sanctuary is in line with the church’s theology. “We, as a religious institution, need to cast an ideal vision of what the world could be−the Kingdom of God. Instead of deportation and division, we want to create a world of safety and warmth,” the pastor said in an interview with The Politic.

The church’s involvement with the sanctuary issue also stems from a desire for redemption. It bears a history of having participated in the expansion of the American frontier—and the genocide of indigenous people.

“This church gained land and money from the Native American people’s loss, which is why it is all the more important that we be a source of healing for the community,” Flippin explained.

After becoming a pastor for the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in November 2017, Flippin has shared the same space with Pinos and his family every day. “It has truly been a blessing to welcome them,” she said. “As a mother of a four-year-old daughter who is friends with Pinos’ [six-year-old] son, it’s so heartbreaking to imagine what would happen to his family if they were separated.”

Her eyes welled up with tears.

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One crucial actor in Pinos’ sanctuary story is Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), a grassroots immigrant-rights organization based in New Haven. Founded in 2002 by Latino migrants from Los Angeles, ULA has long fought for social justice, highlighting police brutality and income disparities.

Every week, ULA has meetings at the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church to discuss how to continue its campaigns. And every night, a member of ULA stays with Pinos in the church, just in case ICE decides violate its own “sensitive site” policy to arrest Pinos. Since Pinos is currently unable to work, the group also helps support his family financially.

In an interview with The Politic, ULA member Vanesa Suarez stressed the additional importance of organizing rallies to bring visibility to Nelson’s plight. “Rallies give voice to those who are facing injustice and put pressure on organizations to do the right thing,” Suarez said. “By raising our voices, we can make those who are apathetic uncomfortable.”

Suarez said she felt discomfort when she first saw that undocumented members of her Latino community did not have the same opportunities that she had. When applying to universities, her undocumented friends were ineligible for scholarships just because they did not have citizenship. “It’s just so unfair how a single piece of paper makes such a big difference,” Suarez emphasized.

Suarez said that the difference in the levels of support for Pinos and Viviana Andazola Marquez ’18, a Yale student whose father was detained by immigration officials in October 2017, reaffirmed her commitment to Pinos’s case.

“For me, the outpour of support for Viviana showed how much support there could be for Nelson,” Suarez recalled. “I realized that people like me and Nelson, because of our ethnicity and background, are still very much seen as outsiders and we need to work to change that. We need to let everyone know that what Nelson is facing is violence.”

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Some members of the Yale community have also decided to play a role in Pinos’ fight.

Larissa Martinez ’20 joined ULA last semester after being introduced to the organization through a friend. In an interview with The Politic, she described her experience in ULA as one of inspiration and solidarity. “ULA is an intersectional movement that is just so inclusive,” Martinez said. “I find everyone to be inspiring because they are so committed to fighting for what they believe in.”

Matinez herself is an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. in 2010 with her mother and sister. After coming to Yale, she noticed a large gap between different students’ opportunities. “It’s not just about being from high- and low-income families, although that itself makes a huge difference. For instance, DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] students are especially vulnerable and can’t travel or work.” Martinez says that, although she is grateful for her opportunity at Yale, her frustration with that gap allows her to connect with the unfairness of Pinos’ situation.

“People on campus seem to be too caught up in the bureaucracy of political action,” Martinez said with disappointment. “As Yale students, we seem to be so intent on being that one person who changed the world. In reality, it’s not like that and it requires a communal effort. Even if everyone just spent five hours protesting, if everyone did it, it would make such a great difference.”

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Currently, Pinos and his lawyers are preparing papers to request a temporary stay, which will allow him to leave the church. However, even if he is able to leave the church without fear of deportation, a long battle remains ahead: having stayed in sanctuary without employment for such a long time, Pinos will have to start a job from anew. And he will still face lengthy legal procedures to fix his immigration status.

“I am hopeful,” Pinos said. “I have to be.”