Nelson Pinos pushed the heavy glass-paned door and stepped into the chill on the portico of the historic New England church. His 6-year-old son Brandon hopscotched around him. They’re practically inseparable.
“This is the farthest that I can come out,” he said. “If I cross the gate, I’ll be at risk of being detained. Even here, I feel like somebody’s going to come and just grab me.”
He had his hands in his pockets, a sullen look on his goateed face. He stopped midway across the stone colonnade atop the steps to First and Summerfield United Methodist Church. His son skipped to the black metal gate that encloses the church entrance across the street from the New Haven Green.
“I can’t leave this place,” Pinos said. “I have never been in jail but this is jail.”
For the undocumented Ecuadoran immigrant with a final deportation order over his head, the holiday season marks nearly 400 days since he first took sanctuary in the church — which US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) categorizes as a “sensitive location,” where arrests are rarely attempted.
Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, confirmations and other special occasions have become low-key affairs where Pinos and his loved ones come together within the safety of the church walls to quietly cherish the hours and days they’re still able to spend together.
“There are no holidays right now,” Pinos said. “There are no plans. What would I do here? Even if the kids were here with me, it’s not the same. I’m not free.”
In mid-December, an immigrant rights organization held a tree-lighting ceremony with Pinos and his family on the portico. Residents surrounded the family to “contemplate” the meaning of Christmas “while so many are living under the threat and the reality of detention, deportation, and family separation.”
“There’s always that one spot there in the family, which is like, OK, that’s where daddy belongs and he’s not here,” said his daughter Kelly, 16. “He just missed out on a lot, especially the holidays.”
‘The hardest year of my life’
Pinos, 44, emigrated to the US from his native Ecuador illegally in the 1990s, according to attorney Tina Colon Williams of Connecticut-based Esperanza Center for Law and Advocacy. He was in his late teens.
A deportation order against him was issued years ago after a missed court date, but it was stayed as long as he regularly reported to ICE.
“He’s a father, three kids,” Colon said. “No criminal history. Not historically the kind of person that ICE would say, ‘Let’s put our efforts toward removing this person from the country.’ So he was under ICE supervision for many, many years. They knew he was here.”
That changed in 2017 under the Trump administration, which has ramped up immigration enforcement.
“Under Obama, a big priority was removing individuals who had criminal history,” Colon said. “Or focusing on people who had committed crimes. Whereas now, officially, the priorities of the administration are (to) remove everyone. And we’ve seen a really big human cost to that approach.”
Colon is seeking a stay of Pinos’ removal based on the hardship and trauma that his continued “bizarre state of incarceration” in the church poses for his children.
“There are so many people rallying around him and he has a team that’s fighting every angle that’s available within the law to see if someone with authority can give him the mercy he needs,” she said.
Last year, Pinos was ordered to leave the country by the end of November.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was just crying and crying.”
Over the years, he worked for a manufacturing plant, paid taxes and purchased a home in New Haven. He has three US-born children — ages six to 16 — with his partner of many years. Like many neighbors, he drove the kids to the beach and Walt Disney and celebrated their birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese.
“Pretty much I’ve lived much longer here in the United States than I lived in my country,” he said.
On November 30, 2017, he decided to take sanctuary at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, which had granted sanctuary to another undocumented immigrant before him.
“It was because of my kids,” Pinos said of the decision. “I want to be around them. I want to see them grow up. I want to see them pursue their dreams. Yes, this has been hard. The hardest year of my life. But it’s worth it because my goal is to see my kids grow up.”
ICE considers Pinos ‘an immigration fugitive’
To federal authorities, Pinos remains “an immigration fugitive who is continuing to evade immigration law at a site categorized by ICE as a sensitive location,” according to a statement from ICE New England region spokesman John Mohan.
“ICE categorizes certain locations as sensitive locations where arrests are, essentially, not attempted.” the statement said. “Evading immigration enforcement does not void ICE’s authority to enforce a final order of removal. The removal order against Mr. Pinos-Gonzalez remains in effect.”
The policy doesn’t rule out enforcement in certain circumstances, such as when a supervisor approves the move, or in instances relating to national security, terrorism or public safety. ICE said the policy is meant to ensure that people can participate in activities and seek services at sensitive places like churches without hesitation.
The number of US churches willing to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants has risen to more than 1,000, according to Church World Service.
There are currently 49 people across the US who, like Pinos, have publicly sought sanctuary, said Myrna Orozco, who helps organize sanctuary at Church World Service. The average length of time is about a year; one person is approaching two years in sanctuary.
“For the well-being of my family, it is worth it a thousand times,” Pinos said of his time at the church.
Community has rallied around Pinos and his family
Pinos usually waits on the other side of the wrought iron gate for his family to visit. Brandon jumps into his arms. Inside, he helps the boy with homework. They watch YouTube. Sometimes they wrestle on the carpeted floor. Brandon often pleads for a few extra minutes with dad when it’s time to go home.
“My dad and my little brother are really close, like super close,” Kelly said. “My brother looks up to him, always wants to be with him.”
In church, Pinos said he spends his days reading and streaming documentaries. He helps keep the church clean and does handiwork in the building.
In August, Kelly wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about her father’s case.
“I really don’t understand why people in this country hate us so much,” she wrote.
“This year, I’ve realized that there aren’t as many good people as I thought there were. The truth is I’ve never seen so much hatred.”
Kelly said her grades have suffered since her father sought sanctuary. She has taken a part-time job at a McDonald’s to help her mother with household expenses.
“I don’t want us to be sad and struggling all the time,” she said. “I just want us to be happy. I’m scared we’re going to lose the house or whether or not I do good in school anymore.”
Immigration rights groups, residents and community leaders have staged protests in support of Pinos and his family. Democratic US Sen. Richard Blumenthal last year urged ICE to stay Pinos’ removal order. There have been fundraisers for the family and bags of groceries left at their doorstep.
“The community keeps us going,” Kelly said. “I think the community makes us stronger and stronger.”
Her 13-year-old sister, Arlly, said, “If we just show people that it’s okay and we’re just sad all the time, they’re going to feel like they’re winning. So we just have to show them that we’re powerful and we’re just like them. We’re humans just like them.”