Immigrant marks nearly 400 days in sanctuary over holidays

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 Ecuadorian 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["ad-manager-58815-3"]= {"custom_css":[],"ad_details":[{"min_width":"","max_width":"","dfp_ad_sizes":[{"dfp_ad_width":"300","dfp_ad_height":"250"}]}],"ad_id":58815,"ad_container":"div-ad-manager-58815-3","ad_placement":"in-article","ad_name":"ad-manager-58815-3","position":"in_article","article_position":2,"out_of_page_ad":null,"lazyload":"global"};

“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.”