Mexican immigrant Rosa Sabido first sought sanctuary from deportation at Mancos United Methodist Church in June 2017. She is hoping she may be able to leave in 2021. (Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald)

By Mary Shinn, The Durango Herald

MANCOS When longtime Cortez resident Rosa Sabido first sought sanctuary from deportation in Mancos United Methodist Church more than 1,000 days ago, she expected to stay for a few weeks to a year.

As the fight for her legal residency stretched into years, she decided she would not back down and she would instead stay on church grounds living in a personal “exile” to fight on.

Her decision attracted national and international media attention, giving the self-described “hermit” an opportunity to advocate for herself and the immigrant community.

“If people like me are not standing and speaking for others, nothing will change,” said Sabido, who has lived in Montezuma County for 32 years.

Sabido will mark her 1,000th day in sanctuary on Thursday, according to a group of supporters calling themselves “Rosa Belongs Here.” The group will hold a vigil and deliver a petition to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton’s office in Durango. The petition, with 2,712 signatures as of Friday, requests Tipton to sponsor a bill that would allow Sabido to continue to work through a legal path toward staying in the United States.

Sabido, a former church secretary, previously hesitated to give out her phone number to anyone, but her conviction to fight for immigrants’ rights led her to share her story with reporters who came to Mancos in waves.

She has told and retold her story to news outlets, such as the BBC, The Washington Post, Reuters, Univision and The Los Angeles Times, in hopes it will touch hearts, she said.

Sabido, a Mexican national, has been trying to gain legal residency in the U.S. for decades after moving to Cortez with her mother when she was 23.

“I did everything right,” she said.

A stack of legal documents from the past 10 years stand several feet tall, and she struggles to pick them up. But after exhausting the immigration appeals process, her hopes for residency hang on a lawmaker introducing a private bill that must be approved by the U.S. Congress.

“I think I have the right to remain here, and I want to fight until the end,” she said.

She also wants to stay in Montezuma County for her brother’s grandson who is 14 and was left with Sabido’s mother and stepfather when his family went back to Mexico.

“I feel like I am the only anchor. … The only person of his family on his Mexican side that can be there for him and take care of him,” she said.

Mexican immigrant Rosa Sabido first sought sanctuary from deportation at Mancos United Methodist Church in June 2017. She is hoping she may be able to leave in 2021. (Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald)

Surreal life in sanctuary

The fight to remain in the U.S. has left Sabido with many hours to fill. There are times when she says she spends hours on the computer, looking inward.

She also struggles with depression and missing big events in her life, such as her mother’s death.

“It feels like I am dead, like I was taken from the face of the Earth,” she said.

The “surreal” nature of her life has kept her from starting the grieving process for her mother, she said.

“I haven’t touched that reality of losing her. … I haven’t been in her empty bedroom looking at her clothes,” she said.

Sabido has also lost five of her six dogs and some of her cats while in sanctuary, she said.

To get through what she describes as an “exile,” she works to have a rhythm to her days and weeks, by cooking, one of her passions, and learning to bead, quilt and play drums through the numerous groups that meet at the church. For her, it was an intentional decision to say “yes” to the opportunities to learn new skills while living at the church.

While working on intricate beaded orbs called “doodads” recently, Sabido and her beading circle compared their progress and how they had to rip out lines of beads and start over.

“She just needs time to sit down and laugh and be a human,” said Betty Schneider, a member of the group.

Sabido also works to stave off health concerns – such as back, neck and shoulder problems, which have come along with living in a confined space – by doing yoga, she said. Volunteers also provide her with massage, acupuncture and talk therapy, she said.

Sabido also finds comfort talking with other immigrants living in sanctuary once a week via video chat.

“It helps me to be humble and be sympathetic,” she said.

Some of those immigrants are facing even tougher situations because they don’t speak English or have rough relationships with churches providing sanctuary. Some immigrants in sanctuary have their mail or donations withheld or aren’t provided help with their immigration case, she said.

For some immigrants, standing up to those offering aid means running the risk of getting kicked out of sanctuary and so they stay silent, she said.

“We are so used to being diminished and belittled and ignored and abused and controlled that we allow it,” she said.

Mexican immigrant Rosa Sabido first sought sanctuary from deportation at Mancos United Methodist Church in June 2017. She is hoping she may be able to leave in 2021. (Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald)

Fighting on

Giving up on her immigration fight would be the easy route, she said. Instead, she is fighting by gathering signatures for her petition asking Tipton, R-Cortez, to introduce a bill that would grant her lawful permanent residency.

Tipton refused to introduce a bill on Sabido’s behalf previously. But she is hopeful thousands of signatures representing his constituency might help change his mind. If Tipton declines her request again, she can ask any other legislator to introduce the bill. At this point, she hopes to leave the church in 2021.

United Methodist Rev. Craig Paschal said Sabido’s belief that her fight can benefit other immigrants has helped her persevere.

“I think that has given her the strength and the endurance,” he said.

Sabido’s high-profile case has also had an effect on the Montezuma County community, which is largely conservative. In some cases, her story has softened residents’ hearts and sparked compassion. But it has also caused some residents to dig in and become more committed to a narrative that U.S. citizens don’t have common ground with immigrants living in the country illegally.

Paschal said he has hope that anti-immigrant sentiments can change.

“In the long run, I think we’ll realize that we need one another,” he said.