This Church Is Reviving the Sanctuary Movement to Shelter Undocumented Immigrants From Deportation

The sanctuary movement for immigrants is being reborn at places like Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church where Daniel Neyoy and his family dodge deportation.

Will Seberger/

TUCSON — Daniel Neyoy Ruiz doesn’t sleep much. He lies awake on the bunk bed he shares with his wife and 13-year-old son, wondering what he will do if he’s forced to leave them. Every police siren sends his stomach into knots: Is this it? Are they coming for me?

In the light of day, he paints, plays piano and guitar, and occasionally watches TV. The courtyard in the center of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church is as far as he can venture outside the small, windowless room he and his family have called home since they took sanctuary here two weeks ago. He cannot work or drive or even attend a barbecue in the church’s parking lot. He receives the occasional visitor, but many of his family and friends fear that associating with him could be dangerous.

Neyoy is restless. But the church is the only place he’s truly safe from a final order of removal by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And to Neyoy, anything is better than deportation.

“I don’t want to go to Mexico,” Neyoy tells me in Spanish on Day 18 of his stay at Southside Presbyterian, an open-air, adobe clay building about a mile from downtown Tucson on the city’s south side, which is inhabited mostly by low-income Hispanic and Native American families.

Summer has come early to Tucson this year and even at 5 p.m., it’s 102 degrees outside. It’s the kind of dry desert heat that chaps lips and turns seatbelts into branding irons. Heat that requires days to begin at sunrise and afternoons to be spent indoors, preferably under the full blast of air conditioning—an amenity that Neyoy’s current quarters lack. But Neyoy is unfazed by the early-evening steam. In a white, short-sleeved undershirt, blue-and-gray camouflaged shorts, and black Converse All Stars with black laces, he leans forward intently at the edge of one of three chairs in his dimly lit room. The bright purples, pinks, and blues of his paintings, resting against shelves stacked with clothes, bring a festive air to this otherwise dismal setting. His wife, Karla, in a black tank top, jeans and glasses, a messy bun offering her neck reprieve from the heat, sits next to him, occasionally touching his knee in support. He speaks softly, choosing his words carefully and patiently, repeating himself to ensure that I’ve understood exactly what he’s said. Aside from a few words, neither Daniel nor Karla speaks English.

“I am from Sinaloa,” he says, referring to the Mexican state that is home to the Sinaloa Cartel, the world’s most powerful drug-trafficking organization. “I am from a neighborhood where there are many bad people. I want my son to go to high school and university. I don’t want him to see what happens there.”

Neyoy is the first immigrant to take sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian in over 30 years. In the 1980s, under the direction of former pastor John Fife, the church sparked the renowned “Sanctuary Movement” by opening Southside Presbyterian’s doors to hundreds of Central American refugees fleeing the political oppression of their own governments and deportation from the United States. Though the tradition of religious sanctuary for criminals dates back to the Old Testament, church walls don’t actually offer any real legal protection for those inside. Still, local police and immigration officials alike have historically respected the bounds of church property—presumably as a means of avoiding political confrontation with the religious community.

In fact, in the past, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had proven reliably averse to making religious enemies—so much so that when Southside Presbyterian would announce plans to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation, ICE quickly granted the requests to stay in the country as soon as the word “sanctuary” was uttered. So neither Neyoy’s attorney, Tucson public defender Margo Cowan, nor Southside Pastor Alison Harrington thought Daniel and his family would actually have to move into the church, let alone stay there.

What makes this family’s near-month long hideout especially compelling is that Daniel Neyoy is the exact type of person President Obama’s controversial prosecutorial discretion policy intends to protect: a long-term, law-abiding resident with an American-born child. But thanks to a misguided navigation of the ever-changing legal landscape, Neyoy was subjected to some of the darkest aspects of current immigration enforcement: profiling, arrest, detention, and the very real threat of deportation.


Daniel and Karla came to Tucson from Mexico 14 years ago as newlyweds and never left. She had a temporary travel visa, he was completely undocumented. Their first and only child, Carlos, was born in Tucson a year after they arrived. Over time, Neyoy worked his way up from cleaning kitchens to becoming a maintenance supervisor at an apartment complex.

While the fear of deportation always loomed, President Obama’s emphasis on deporting criminals gave Neyoy peace of mind. (This is the same program that Republicans have been smearing as a blanket asylum for undocumented immigrants—a line of attack for Tea Partiers that may have played a role in the surprise defeat of House Majority leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primaries.) Neyoy didn’t have a criminal record. He paid taxes. He even went through training with the Tucson Police Department to participate in an apartment watch program. “I did everything I thought you needed to do,” he says.

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But three years ago, on President’s Day, Neyoy was pulled over on his way to work. The officer told him his tailpipe was emitting smoke.

“But I have a Latino car, with decals and Spanish radio,” Neyoy says.

“You could tell he was Mexican,” Karla adds.

Driving while Mexican has long been a dangerous endeavor in Arizona—even before the state passed the controversial Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, better known as SB-1070, requiring people to carry legal documentation of their immigration status at all times. Between 2007 and 2010, 26,146 immigrants were deported from Arizona’s Maricopa County alone—about 22.5 percent of the total 115,841 deportations handled by law enforcement agencies around the country participating in 287(g), a now mostly defunct federal-local partnership that authorized local police to enforce federal immigration law by stopping people, in their cars or on the street, to see their immigration documents.

In 2012, ICE decided to abandon one contentious program for another: Secure Communities. Introduced at the end of the Bush era and expanded under Obama, Secure Communities removes the authority to enforce immigration from local cops but requires them to share fingerprint records with the FBI and ICE in an effort to deport convicted criminals. According to an analysis of ICE data by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, 2.3 million people were deported in the six years between 2008, when Secure Communities was launched, and the end of fiscal year 2013. During this time period, the number of deportees whose most serious criminal charge was a traffic offense grew 191 percent, from 16,249 in 2008 to 47,249 in 2013.

Neyoy says the officer who pulled him over dismissed his Mexican driver’s license, the only document he had to offer, and called Border Patrol. He was then funneled into detention at the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector headquarters.

For three days Neyoy sat in a holding cell that, according to his description, was every bit as miserable as many other detained immigrants have claimed. The room was freezing cold and thick with body odor from the 100 to 200 other men who had not been permitted to shower or change their clothes since they were arrested—which, for most of them, came after several days of walking in the desert. Many of the detainees were in desperate need of first aid, Neyoy says, his dark eyes widening with sadness as he recalls the haunting conditions. Many of the agents were insensitive and crass, shouting insults and expletives at the detainees in Spanish.

“Those who said the worst things to me were Mexicans,” Daniel says. “They know the bad words in Spanish,” like “cabron,” or “asshole,” and “pendejo,” meaning “stupid.”

Then there was the music. Day and night, Neyoy says, a cassette tape played on repeat a Mexican song like the popular accordion-backed narcocorridos with Spanish lyrics like, “You came to the United States illegally” and “You are not welcome.” Neyoy couldn’t sleep. Border Patrol spokesman Peter Bidegain, who is stationed at the Tucson Sector headquarters were Neyoy was detained, says he’s never heard of agents playing songs like the one Neyoy described. Though Cowan hasn’t heard of songs with such specifically antagonizing lyrics, she says she’s had clients complain of round-the-clock music.

“These people are treated like animals. It’s ugly,” Neyoy says. After three days, he says, he was transferred to a different detention center in the prison town of Florence, Arizona, where he was held for a month. “Florence was worse.”

Neyoys wife sold their car to pay to have him released on bond and hired their first lawyer. That lawyer asked that the Neyoys not disclose his name to the press. But according to Cowan, who took on Neyoy’s case in April, the first lawyer put him through the traditional immigration law process to halt deportation—to Neyoy’s detriment.

Instead of taking advantage of the fact that Neyoy’s squeaky-clean background made him a prime candidate to have his case closed under the president’s prosecutorial discretion policy, the first lawyer applied through the traditional—and traditionally tricky—channels to have Neyoy’s deportation order cancelled. When that failed, the lawyer filed an appeal and was denied.

Getting an immigration removal case appealed is very difficult, Cowan explains, because it requires proving that the U.S. citizen—in this case, Carlos—would suffer egregious harm, worse than the obvious emotional distress of having his father deported.

“They give visas to people who have sick children, with cancer or autism or special needs,” says Neyoy. “My son, thank God, doesn’t have any of these problems.”

“So, they think because he is healthy, we can leave him,” Karla says.

According to the most recent ICE data available, more than 200,000 deportations were ordered for people with U.S.-born children between July 2010 and October 2012. During the first six months of 2011, 22 percent of those deported claimed their children were U.S. citizens.

But since 2011, when then-ICE director John Morton issued a series of memos to agents outlining which undocumented immigrants should be a priority for deportation and which should not, cases like Neyoys are commonly closed. Cowan notes that Keep Tucson Together, her all-volunteer legal clinic that meets at Southside Presbyterian and that offers assistance—including occasional sanctuary requests—to immigrants facing deportation, has closed more than 100 cases by asking for favorable prosecutorial discretion.

“It’s not the greatness of our clinic, it’s the fact that ICE is being responsive and following the Morton Memos,” Cowan says.

The volunteers at Cowan’s clinic aren’t the only ones finding success within the system. According to a study of case-by-case immigration court records by TRAC Immigration at Syracuse University, more deportation cases have been closed by prosecutorial discretion so far this fiscal year than during all of fiscal year 2012—the first year the program was implemented. In fact, 26.8 percent of the total immigration cases closed by prosecutorial discretion since the program was introduced in October 2011, were closed in Tucson—bringing the city’s immigration court in second place, after Seattle, for the most prosecutorial discretion closes in the country.

It’s possible that Neyoy’s original attorney was not caught up on the nuances of the Morton Memos, which were introduced not long after Neyoy’s legal battle began. It’s also possible that it was not in the lawyer’s own best interest to have Neyoy’s case closed right away. Unlike with other types of law, immigration attorneys charge not by the hour but by the event: every court appearance, every form filed, and so on.

When Daniel and Karla finally sought Cowan’s help in April of this year, they’d spent nearly $20,000 on bonds and lawyer fees and were out of options. After Neyoy’s appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals had been rejected in March, he was notified that he had until May 13 to leave the country voluntarily or his order of removal would become final, meaning he could technically be deported at any time.

On May 2, the Neyoy’s hosted a small party at their house for Carlos’s 13th birthday. On May 12, they moved out of their house and into Southside.


Southside Presbyterian Church has a long history of activism when it comes to Tucson’s immigrant community. Between 1980 and 1991, almost 1 million Central Americans migrated to the United States via the Southwest border, seeking asylum from brutal civil wars at home. In order to continue providing aid to Central American governments—specifically those of El Salvador and Guatemala—the Reagan administration rejected most of the Central American migrants’ pleas for refugee status, arguing that they had come to the United States fleeing poverty rather than their repressive regimes. As a result, Central American immigrants were often detained and then deported—often to tragic ends According to a 1985 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, 130 people sent back to El Salvador were later found killed, tortured, or disappeared.

In response to the influx of desperate Central American migrants crossing the border without recourse in 1982, then-Southside Pastor John Fife declared his church a place of public sanctuary, offering a moral haven from the immigration authorities. The concept caught fire, and soon churches of all denominations along the border and as far away as Chicago and Philadelphia were offering sanctuary.

The movement petered out in the late ’80s, after a crackdown by the Immigration and Naturalization Service Agency (the precursor to ICE). But targeting the churchs inadvertently brought even more attention to the cause and, eventually, asylum was granted for many of the refugees involved.

Daniel Neyoy’s case is just the sort that prompted President Obama, after a meeting with Hispanic lawmakers in March, to order a review of deportation practices by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson—an order that Obama halted last month in an apparent effort to salvage any chance of congressional compromise on Comprehensive Immigration Reform before the Labor Day recess. Cowan fears families like the Neyoys could be a political casualty.

“I hardly have any clients who are as completely unblemished as Daniel Neyoy,” she said last week over the phone. “My clients are good folks, but you don’t find someone like him very often. I don’t want Daniel to have to sit in Southside Presbyterian Church until Labor Day.”

But there’s only one person Neyoy tells me he wants to hear from: the president himself.

“I want Obama to listen. I sent him a letter, I don’t know if he received it. But in it, I asked him to put himself in my position,” Neyoy says. “You’ve received a letter that says you have to leave the U.S. and you have to leave your wife, Michelle, and your two daughters. What would you do?

“Man to man, father to father, I want a response.”


The president wasn’t the only one asked to consider Neyoy’s case. Last week, Cowan told me that she’d reached out to Secretary Johnson, and Cecilia Munoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, as well as various other members of Congress and the Obama administration. “Everyone who should care is receiving a letter,” she said. Additionally, as of Monday, almost 1,600 Americans had signed a a Groundswell petition calling on Johnson to close Neyoy’s case.

Finally, on Monday evening, their calls, faxes, emails and letters were answered. After 28 days in sanctuary, Neyoy was notified that ICE had granted him a work permit and a renewable one-year stay of removal. Daniel, Karla and Carlos could now go back to their house and resume their lives, for at least another year.

Southside Presbyterian Pastor Alison Harrington announced the news on the church’s website, inviting community members to celebrate following a press conference and prayer service on Thursday. “So bring a dish to share and get ready to dance!!” she wrote.

Though the Neyoys are surely overcome with both excitement and relief, Daniel won’t soon forget how he was treated in detention.

“I would like to go back there one day with a camera so people can see what is happening,” he told me at the church. “I don’t want this to happen to my people. That was my first time and when I first saw what was happening there I became angry. It breaks my heart because nobody knows. Nobody knows.”