José Chicas has seen his son Ezequiel grow taller and older through small windows of time when he visits Chicas at the School for Conversion in Durham, his temporary home.
Chicas and the rest of his family — his wife Sandra Marquina, their two oldest sons, Darwin and Oscar, and their daughter, Andrea — ate a cake at the school for Ezequiel’s birthday in June. They celebrated Thanksgiving and Father’s Day there. And for the couple’s 26th anniversary in March, they shared a meal with 40 friends and neighbors at the school, on the property of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church.
In the year Chicas has lived there he’s met the Rev. William J. Barber II, former president of the N.C. NAACP, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who visited while in Durham in April.
“Sen. Sanders expressed support but has not contacted me, after initial enthusiasm,” said Helen Parsonage, Chicas’s immigration lawyer.
And now a rare legislative process in Congress that has given permanent legal residency to at least 136 people since 1986 appears out of reach.
In June, the Durham City Council unanimously passed a resolution that asked the Department of Homeland Security to give prosecutorial discretion to Chicas and Samuel Oliver-Bruno who are both living in sanctuary in houses of worship in Durham.
The resolution, led by Javiera Caballero, the city’s first Hispanic council member, urged U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield to introduce private immigration bills in Congress for the two men. Such bills, if they become law, can provide legal permanent residency.
In a letter to the council, Price and Butterfield expressed support for the men and congregations across the U.S. sheltering people facing deportation. But they also declined to introduce private bills, citing the Republican majority in Congress and a policy change made in May 2017.
“Rather than undertaking symbolic gestures that have limited chances of achieving solutions for these individuals, we prefer to engage directly with the agency on their behalf to exhaust every avenue of legal recourse.,” Price’s spokesman Sawyer Hackett explained in an email.
The GOP had a majority in the House during most of President Barack Obama’s two terms and in the Senate for the last two years. Between 2010 and 2016, three private immigration bills became laws, records show.
In the past, introducing a private bill automatically delayed immigration proceedings, including removal orders. Policy changes under President Trump’s administration no longer automatically delay proceedings. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will only consider delays in removal orders if the chair of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate or U.S. House of Representatives asks for it in writing. Delays are now limited to six months.
During this congressional session, 54 private immigration bills have been introduced, including a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and co-sponsored by U.S. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in June 2017, congressional records show. Marquina, Chicas’s wife, said Tillis has declined to support Chicas.
Eight private immigration bills have been introduced since February.
What is a private immigration bill?
Unlike a public bill, which is based on public matters and relates to the entire population, a private bill applies to an individual, group of individuals, corporations or institutions.
Private immigration bills are usually reserved for people going through extreme hardship and are usually a last resort after exhausting all other legal action.
Advocates see the bills as an alert to lawmakers of flaws and inequities in current laws. ICE interprets them as “circumventing the normal immigration law framework,” according to the agency’s new policy on the bills.
They go through the same legislative process as public bills. A Congress member introduces the bill in a committee in either the Senate or House of Representatives, after the bill passes in both chambers, the bill is sent to the president for a signature.
Private immigration bills rarely become laws. Almost 1,700 were introduced between 1986 and 2018, congressional records show. A beneficiary may have multiple bills in the same or different session.
Rep. Price introduced one private immigration bill of behalf of five people in 1993. The bill did not make it out of the House.
Since 1986, about 5 percent of private immigration bills have become laws. Records show that Sopuruchi Chukwueke, who emigrated from Nigeria and lived in Michigan, was the last person to receive legal permanent residency from this type of measure under President Obama in 2012.
“A private bill would be significant, but very hard to obtain in this Congress,” Parsonage said.
While Price and Butterfield declined to introduce bills for Chicas and Oliver-Bruno, they are communicating directly with ICE on behalf of the men living in sanctuary, Hackett emphasized.
“I don’t believe any of the private immigration bills that have been introduced this year have been passed,” he said.
When Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the director of the School for Conversion, and Barber invited him to live at the school to avoid deportation, Chicas thought he would be there for three or four months.
ICE most likely won’t arrest him there because of an administrative policy of not entering sensitive locations like churches, schools and hospitals.
But as time drags on, Chicas wonders what good it has done.
“When my wife comes to visit me here we always talk about what’s the purpose of someone taking sanctuary?” he said.
“Right? Because we haven’t seen a lot of changes. “
Marquina said Price’s office has sent two letters on behalf of her husband, one to Thomas Homan, former ICE director, and to ICE’s field office in Charlotte.
“[Price] has told me, openly in public and in private that they are going to exhaust all the resources to support José Chicas’ case,” she said.
“They should introduce a private bill. To me, that’s exhausting all your efforts.”
Sanders and Barber’s visit in April helped Marquina get an appointment with Butterfield, Chicas said.
“[Sanders] told me how sorry he was that I am living in sanctuary, like everyone does,” Chicas said. “And that the only way for us to be liberated from sanctuary is for the Democrats to win the 2020 election.”
Alerta Migratoria, a local immigrant advocacy group, continues to pressure Price and the rest of the North Carolina congressional delegation to intervene and stop the deportation of the six people living in sanctuary in the state, including Chicas and Oliver-Bruno.
A year away from his home and his family has been difficult, Chicas said.
Since he can’t leave the school, he can’t work. The family is behind on rent and the power bill. They’ve sold a car and advertise on Facebook for Chicas’s mobile car wash van, parked on the church’s property. Sometimes people call his cell phone to set up an appointment.
Chicas was the pastor at Iglesia Evangélica in Raleigh. In his absence, his wife now preaches most Sundays.
The publicity he’s received while living in sanctuary led to him preaching every Thursday afternoon on a radio station in El Salvador.
With the extra time on his hands, Chicas has started to pray for people across the world through a Facebook Live feed. People from Canada, Chile, Colombia and Argentina send in prayer requests.
He also prays for himself.
“I pray to God and I ask him, ‘God, please get me out of this place,’” Chicas said. “I want to leave.”