As Jaime Rubio Sulficio’s 6-year-old son understands it, his dad — a Mexican immigrant and construction company owner who had been told to leave this country by March 28 — is going “camping” at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral.
The boy is too young to take in exactly what’s happening, Rubio Sulficio and wife Keiko Maruyama said. They were having a hard time with it themselves.
Friday morning, Rubio Sulficio took sanctuary at the Capitol Hill cathedral, taking advantage of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidelines to avoid arrests at “sensitive locations” including places of worship, schools and hospitals.
“It’s a little emotional,” he said, adding he and Maruyama agonized for months over whether he should move out of their Shoreline house and into the cathedral. They said he chose to do so to keep their family together as best they could. Both his wife, an office manager for a Seattle retail company, and son are American citizens.
“Thinking of him growing up without me around breaks my heart,” Rubio Sulficio said of his son, talking to reporters and supporters gathered for a news conference at St. Mark’s.
The 37-year-old, who came to the U.S. illegally more than a dozen years ago, is the second immigrant to take sanctuary at a church in the Puget Sound, according to Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.
Jose Robles, also a Mexican immigrant ordered deported, has been living for nine months at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle.
St. Mark’s and Gethsemane are part of a new sanctuary movement that has arisen in the past two years as the administration of President Donald Trump cracked down on immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Eleven local churches and synagogues have pledged support, Ramos said, although not all of them have space for people to live on-site.
ICE spokeswoman Tanya Roman, asked for comment, did not address this movement specifically. In a statement, she criticized local governments that have adopted policies prohibiting cooperation with immigration enforcement. “Sanctuary policies not only provide a refuge for illegal aliens, but they also shield criminal aliens who prey on people in their own and other communities,” the statement said.
His attorney, Lori Walls, said Rubio Sulficio has no criminal record other than a misdemeanor for illegal entry. In that incident, after living in the Seattle area for years, he had gone home to visit his sick mother in 2010 and was caught in Texas as he tried to sneak back in.
An immigration judge ordered him deported in 2012, but ICE repeatedly granted him temporary stays of that order, a consideration sometimes offered to immigrants whose families would suffer hardships if they left. Maruyama, his wife, has epilepsy.
After ICE’s policies became stricter under Trump, the agency said in November it would no longer renew Rubio Sulficio’s stay, according to Walls. He was given 120 days to leave.
“Although I am not unsympathetic to the emotional and financial hardships associated with this case,” ICE acting Seattle field office director Bryan Wilcox wrote in a letter, there was no “urgent humanitarian” reason for Rubio Sulficio to remain in the U.S., nor one of “significant public benefit.”
The kind of stays ICE granted to Rubio Sulficio are not intended to be a permanent change to someone’s immigration status, according to ICE.
The Very Rev. Stevan Thomason of St. Mark’s said the cathedral, concerned about a national climate of xenophobia and hatred, has a team of about 40 people that for the past two years been preparing a sanctuary space and support for possible guests.
“We didn’t know if and when this day might come,” he said. When the church council called to say now was the moment, “We said yes.”
“They are not strangers,” Thomason said of Rubio Sulficio and his family at the news conference. “They are part of our family.”
Wearing a blue suit and white button-down shirt, Rubio Sulficio said he has tried to serve the community by working hard, volunteering for an organization that helps low-income people improve their homes, and sharing his passion for Latin dance as an instructor at local studios.
Talking after the news conference with his wife by his side, Rubio Sulficio said he had come to the U.S., like most immigrants, looking for a better life. He grew up in a poor, rural part of Mexico, and he started working at 11 years old to pay his school fees. He graduated from high school but could not afford college.
Both Rubio Sulficio and Maruyama, at times fighting back tears, said they would continue to fight for him to be allowed to stay here. But the path is not clear.
“Under the current law,” Walls said, “there is no legal remedy.”
Robles has not found it easy to be living in a confined space these past nine months, said the Rev. Joanne Engquist of Gethsemane. But he has groceries brought in, cooks often, and sees his wife and three children as much as possible. “He’s been extremely resilient,” Engquist said.
ICE officers have not shown up, demanding to come in, she said.
To protect Rubio Sulficio, St. Mark’s is saying little about where on its campus its guest will live or what arrangements it has made.
Rubio Sulficio, though, said he is prepared to stay “as long as it’s necessary.”
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