Just over a year ago, facing an order to return to Mexico, Jose Robles took refuge inside Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle. He had hardly stepped outside since — until Wednesday.
It was time, he finally decided, to meet with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Robles, 44, stood outside the Department of Homeland Security building in Tukwila, where ICE has its offices, surrounded by family, including his wife and two daughters, and numerous supporters who marched with him from a church a mile away.
“I’m hoping to walk out and thank everybody,” Robles said, nervously rubbing his hands together, eyes filled with anxiety.
He did not. Within about a half-hour, his lawyer, Sandy Restrepo, came out and said he had been detained.
Robles has been a local symbol of the sanctuary movement that got new life amid President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigrants living illegally in the United States. A network of Seattle area churches and synagogues rallied behind Robles, who has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years, and created a podcast about him.
A second undocumented immigrant took sanctuary in March, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral.
Robles’ immigration case, which court records show started after a 2010 jail booking on a misdemeanor domestic-violence charge, later dismissed, has been long-running. An immigration judge ordered him deported in 2013, but ICE granted him three stays of removals, according to an agency statement issued last year.
In 2018, with Trump in office, ICE wouldn’t grant another stay and gave him 90 days to leave “so that his children could finish the school year,” according to the statement. He has one daughter born in the United States, now 9, and two in their early 20s who received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.
On the day he was supposed to fly out, he went instead to Gethsemane. ICE has said it will generally stay away from “sensitive locations,” such as churches, schools and hospitals.
Finally leaving Gethsemane on Wednesday, Robles knew he could be detained — but likely not deported, at least immediately. He appealed his deportation order to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted him a temporary stay in May, according to his attorney. When he was detained Wednesday, ICE promised it would send him to the Northwest Detention Center and not immediately put him on a plane, according to Restrepo.
The stay holds through the end of July. The 9th Circuit has yet to decide whether it will issue a stay that will last until it rules on Robles’ appeal.
Meanwhile, ICE has been repeatedly asking Robles to come in. He couldn’t hold out any longer, his lawyer said. To be viewed as uncooperative could jeopardize a pending application for a U-Visa.
Undocumented immigrants are eligible to apply if they been victims of certain serious crimes. In April 2018, Robles was getting his hair cut at a Lakewood, Pierce County, salon when two armed men wearing ski masks came in and ordered everyone to turn over their belongings. One of the men smacked Robles, then lying on the floor, in the back of his head with a pistol, according to the police report.
During an interview a few months ago in Gethsemane, Robles said the fear stuck with him. His confinement wasn’t helping. “I don’t know how I’m going to react when I’m able to go outside,” he said, in Spanish. He struggled with depression — something he again mentioned Wednesday, saying he needed medical care for that and various ailments, including headaches.
A painter, he also said he didn’t like being unable to work. He was doing odd jobs around the church to alleviate his restlessness.
His wife and youngest daughter stayed with him at least part of the time, and his older daughters visited. He had use of a church common room, where he watched soccer on a big drop-down screen, as well as a kitchen and courtyard.
The congregation was welcoming, hosting a Christmas party for dozens of his friends and family and donating gifts that he could give out.
Even so, he said he didn’t know how much longer he could live there.
Leaving the church, he risked detention, but his U-Visa case would likely be expedited. Normally, it takes four to five years for a decision, Restrepo said, but typically four to six months for someone in detention.
It took months even to submit a U-Visa application. The Lakewood Police Department, which investigated the crime potentially making Robles eligible, would not sign the certification he needed.
Supporters emailed the city to protest — and continue to criticize the department, bringing it up in a Wednesday news release calling for “Governor Jay Inslee to hold agencies like Lakewood Police accountable for creating unsafe environments for local communities by deterring the likelihood of immigrants to report crimes.”
Lakewood has declined to explain its reasoning, citing privacy laws and “the potential for future legal action.”
Generally, Lakewood spokeswoman Brynn Grimley wrote in an email, the city attorney “reviews prior criminal history (if applicable) and any prior involvement with police to determine whether a person meets the ‘likely to be helpful’ criteria.” To get a U-Visa, federal guidelines say immigrants must not only be victims of a crime but show they were helpful or likely to be helpful in the resulting investigation or prosecution.
In 2018, Lakewood approved 14 U-Visa certifications and denied an equal number.
Court and police records released through public disclosure show Robles has pleaded guilty to negligent and reckless driving charges and was arrested twice on domestic-violence charges.
In 2010, a woman identifying herself as Robles’ girlfriend said he slapped her five to six times — he said only once — during an argument in which she also hit him, according to the police report.
Three years later, during an all-night argument with his wife, an intoxicated Robles allegedly bit her several times and threatened to kill both her and himself with a gun, the police report said. He told officers who arrived after a daughter called 911 that he didn’t own a gun, threaten his wife or really intend to kill himself.
In both cases, he was charged with a misdemeanor assault, and the charges were later dismissed.
Since the last case, Robles has gotten counseling, according to his attorney.
Ultimately, the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office signed the U-Visa certification.
It’s possible Robles’ past charges will come up again. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services looks at “moral character” in making its determinations.
Restrepo said the agency also looks at how long ago incidents occurred and whether there’s been rehabilitation. She also noted Roles was never convicted on a domestic-violence charge.
“Jose has made mistakes,” his lawyer said, but he continues to be a “huge part” of his family’s life.
On Wednesday, he held hands with his wife as he prepared to go into the Homeland Security building and his supporters chanted and sang words of encouragement.
“May the people he meets inside that building know he is not alone but has a community behind him,” said the Rev. Beth Chronister, of University Unitarian Church.
“OK,” Robles finally said and nodded. He hugged his wife and daughters before he slowly walked in, with his lawyer and an aide to U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who has advocated on his behalf.
Outside, his family was left in tears.