Sixto Paz sits outside Shadow Rock United Church of Christ. He has been in sanctuary at the church since May 2016 as he fights deportation.

Sixto Paz opens a door and shows me the music room. He sleeps on a bed across from a piano, sheets neatly tucked, a rack of clothes on hangers beside it. Shelves of books. A Magic Marker board. A table, some chairs, and a well-thumbed Bible open to The Book of Genesis. Sixto crashes out at about midnight, wakes up at four. He has trouble sleeping.

His last night in his Lexington Avenue home, well, he didn’t know it was his last night home. He knew he might have to leave, adapt to something not his home, to this church, but when? He had tried not to think about it. Leave family, leave work, leave his life and come here and do nothing but wait for people he did not know to decide his fate. No, he would put that thought off as long as he could.

Sixto is forty-eight. He moved to the US from Mexico at the same time the Reagan administration’s 1986 immigration law passed Congress. Among other things, the law admitted undocumented laborers for temporary and in some cases permanent residence. Sixto worked and traveled freely and legally in and out of the country. For more than twenty-five years, he built a life in Phoenix. He fathered a family, two daughters and a son, all US citizens. He has no criminal record.

But in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security refused to renew his work permit, which had given him authorization to work as a “non-immigrant.” Sixto blames the decision on changing immigration laws fueled by a populist backlash that accused immigrants of taking jobs from American citizens.

Seven years later, in 2009, he was stopped at a checkpoint near Yuma, Arizona. He was charged with remaining in the US longer than his work permit allowed and held at a service processing center near Phoenix.

He spent the next seven years fighting deportation in court. His attorney, Jose Penalosa, told me that he always knew the court might rule against Sixto. He had heard that Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in north Phoenix offered sanctuary to undocumented migrants. Federal immigration and border authorities in most cases avoid detaining people who are staying in churches, schools, and hospitals—“sensitive locations,” according to a 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo.

Penalosa presented Sixto’s situation to the church board in April 2016, and the board agreed to offer sanctuary.

Then, in May, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a stay of removal, paving the way for Sixto’s deportation.

Penalosa called Sixto.

It’s time to go into sanctuary, Sixto recalls him saying.

Sixto was installing a roof. He didn’t know anything about roofing when he started in the early 1990s. Now he does. He can shape any piece of metal, any kind of material. Just ask him and he’ll do it. He’s worked with Mexican tile, eagle tile, clay tile. He has done roofs on Army bases and schools and in residential neighborhoods. He’ll build you a roof from scratch if you want.

I feel his pride. But on that May morning last year, no one cared about his expertise. He was an illegal alien. He stopped working and called his boss.

I have to leave and go into sanctuary, he said. I have to quit my job.

That feels long ago now. How many months has he been at Shadow Rock? Sixto asks himself. Seven, eight?

“Eight,” I say.

Sixto looks at me and shakes his head. He smiles, the sadness in his eyes unmistakable. His daughters, Cynthia and Alondra, both college graduates, and his five-year-old son Ian, visit him at least once a week. He tells his daughters, Leave your phones at home. Be with me, don’t text your friends. I don’t see you that much.

Sixto Paz with his five-year-old son Ian at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, where he has sought sanctuary against deportation since May 2016.

Ian scampers around Sixto’s room, checks out whatever captures his interest, a file cabinet, a desk, Sixto’s bed. He got a toy for Christmas that rises and whirs in the air like a helicopter. It bounces off the walls. Sixto watches Ian, feels the time they are losing with each other slipping away. They talk on the phone all the time. Not the same. Not the same at all.

Sixto doesn’t call too many people. He telephones his daughters every day. They text photos of Ian. If Ian gets into trouble at school, the girls let Sixto know. For instance, Ian likes to play with food. Throws it. Sixto tells him food is not a toy. It is not for throwing. If you take it, eat it. And listen to your teachers, to your mother.

Sixto shows me a row of numbers separated by plus signs on the Magic Marker board. He teaches Ian math. The boy is very smart, Sixto says.

At Christmas time, Sixto helped Ian write a letter to Santa Claus. Tell him what you need, he told his son. The boy asked for a Batman mask and cape. He added, Please Santa Claus get my father out of the church.

Ian asks his father, Why are there so many trees? Who makes the rocks? Why is the sky so blue? Why is there snow? Who makes the parks? When do you leave here?


Ken Heintzelman, pastor of Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, sits in his office on a Saturday afternoon and waits for my questions. His office overlooks a road that wends its way downhill from the triangular church. A passing driver would see an electric candle light in one of the church windows, indicating that an individual has sought sanctuary.

I ask Ken when he first met Sixto. He peers at me through his glasses and strokes his goatee. He recalls the night Sixto and Penalosa attended the April board meeting. Penalosa said that an order of deportation was very possible. He expected a decision any day. Sixto might very well need sanctuary. He was a good candidate. A family man. Homeowner. Employed. Had never been in legal trouble.

Ken and the board considered his request. They concluded that immigration authorities were not considering the life he had established Phoenix. How could he be expected to walk away from it? The board agreed to let him move into the church.

Shadow Rock United Church of Christ has provided sanctuary to four men since 2014.

Shadow Rock began offering sanctuary in 2014. That year, the church joined the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM), a growing faith-based initiative that now involves up to one hundred and twenty congregations across the country, about a quarter of them ready to provide residential protection to people at risk of deportation. NSM is heir to the 1980s sanctuary movement, which dissolved after the Phoenix Immigration and Customs Enforcement office stopped granting stays of deportation without explanation. Even removal orders resulting from administrative errors and negligent attorneys stopped being overturned.

Shadow Rock gave sanctuary to three Mexican men before the congregation agreed to take in Sixto. Although Phoenix does not count itself among the nation’s more than two hundred sanctuary cities, none of the Shadow Rock cases, Ken tells me, have been challenged by immigration authorities. ICE determined that the men did not pose a national security threat. They had no criminal records. The agency did not consider their cases a priority for deportation.

These days, however, Ken worries. On February 15, 2017, the city council voted against Phoenix opting for sanctuary status. In addition, President Donald Trump has threatened to crack down on the sanctuary movement. If he does, Ken says, people like Sixto will be vulnerable. ICE will know where to find them. The Shadow Rock congregation will respond. How, Ken doesn’t know. He shifts in his chair and stares at the ceiling, disturbed, I think, by the thought.

I ask him about Sixto’s first night in the church. Another Mexican man, Ismael Delgado, who stayed in sanctuary at Shadow Rock for more than four hundred days, let Sixto in when he first arrived. Sixto appeared very guarded. Ken and the congregation left him alone to adjust. They did not want to come across as “gringo do-gooders.”

Ken gave Sixto things to do when he asked, careful not to give the impression that he was indentured labor. He also offered him the church keys. Sixto was welcome to go where he pleased on the property. The keys were a matter of practicality. He had to be able to move around the church like anyone else. If Ken couldn’t trust him with the keys, why would he let him stay?

As long as Sixto has patience, Ken thinks he will persevere. The church, he says, is guided in part by the parable of the persistent widow from the Book of Luke. In the parable, the widow pleads with a judge to grant her justice against an adversary.

For some time the judge refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”


Sixto grew up in Sonora, Mexico. He was one of nine children. His father farmed land that belonged to another man before he bought his own farm. Their house was so small, so tiny, Sixto recalls. When he was seven years old, he began to work in the fields. They grew wheat, cotton, oranges, mandarins, lemons. Different things for different seasons. He attended school, took care of cows, sheep, and goats. He completed his homework in the fields. His parents did not know how to read or write. They had no money to send him to college. His father was short but powerful. He would tell Sixto, Be a man. Be strong. Sixto’s mother took care of the daughters; his father watched Sixto and his brothers.

Sit straight at the table, he’d say. Eat and be quiet. Eat whatever your mother serves. Throw nothing away. No elbows on the table. Don’t come to the table without a shirt. This is not a bar. When you talk to someone, look them in the eye, show them respect. Don’t say bad words. Sixto’s father would smack him if he cussed. He would warn him two times. If he didn’t listen, back of the hand to his mouth.

Sixto caught rides to a school about twenty-five miles away. He’d leave home at six in the morning and arrive an hour later by bus. He’d eat a cheese-and-egg tortilla for breakfast.

A family friend lived close to the school and gave him bread and cheese for lunch.

His father called his mother guerrera, warrior, because she worked hard and was fiercely protective of her children. When they got sick, she would walk them to a clinic almost fifteen miles away. She carried them when they were toddlers. Sixto wonders how she did it. Today, people don’t do anything without a car.

In 1986, an older brother moved to Arizona and then told Sixto to join him. His mother rode with Sixto from Sonora north on a train nicknamed el burro, because it was so slow. Sixto never forgot how his mother cried at the thought of another son leaving her. He jumped the border fence near Nogales. There was no barbwire on it in those days, Sixto says. The border patrol didn’t bother with him. He caught a ride to Phoenix on the back of a motorcycle. He was sixteen and spoke no English. He had never been in a city, had never seen streets so big, buildings so tall. He had never left his family. He felt scared and exhilarated.

Sixto worked as a landscaper his first six years in Phoenix. He cut grass, learned how to use a Weed Eater. The work reminded him of his family’s farm. The hot weather the same as in Sonora. In Phoenix, however, he had air conditioning. A shower replaced the bucket of water he had used to bathe. A forty-hour week gave him enough money to buy new shoes. In Mexico he would have had to work much longer just to buy a pair of pants. He sent one hundred and fifty dollars a month to his family.

Sixto left landscaping in 1992 to work in a warehouse. He packaged waterbed frames and met the mother of his children. She, too, grew up in Sonora. They lived together, had two daughters, but never married. They separated after ten years. A failed attempt at reconciliation produced Ian.

In 1998, a friend approached Sixto about a job. He said a company was hiring roofers.

I’ve never done that, Sixto said.

That’s OK. You’ll learn.

How much will he pay? Sixto asked.

How much do you want to make?

Give me ten dollars an hour.

Blisters developed on Sixto’s mouth and hands from the sun his first three months as a roofer. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and cap to protect himself, but his skin still burned. He sweltered but he enjoyed the work. The sense of accomplishment in assembling a new roof. The guys called him viejo, old, because of his wrinkled forehead.

In the summer of 2012, his boss sent him to Baltimore. He drove. He liked what he saw of Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia. So green. Very different from Sonora and Arizona. For three months, he worked ten hours a day, five days a week, installing roofs. Eight hours on Saturday.

He visited Washington, DC. He appreciated its wide streets. Baltimore streets, he thought, were too narrow. People complained about the 90-degree heat, but Sixto thought it was nothing. Arizona reached 100 and more. He worked with metal in that kind of heat. Metal was bad but copper was worse, it absorbed more.

Since he’s been at the church, guys he worked with in Baltimore and Phoenix call him.

We have a lot of work, they tell him. We miss you.

He feels good when they call. They know he’s a hard worker. They were a good team.

What’s going on? his friends ask. Why are you living at a church?


In 2009, Sixto drove to Yuma, Arizona, for a roofing job. On his return to Phoenix, traffic slowed for a border patrol checkpoint. At that time, he no longer had a work permit. He had stayed in Arizona because it had become his home. He knew that he always risked being stopped.

Do you have papers? Sixto recalls one of the patrolmen asking him.


You can’t stay here if you can’t show you’re here legally. When was the last time you were in Mexico?

Two thousand.

How’d you enter the US?

I had a work permit then.

What color was it?

Red, he answered correctly.

How long you here?

Twenty-five years.

Why don’t you have papers?

They said I couldn’t have them anymore.


The border patrol held him two to three hours. He was taken to a county jail around Yuma until he was dropped off at the ICE detention center in Florence, Arizona. He had never been detained before.

People from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines filled the center. Sixto felt bad for the families. Fathers stayed in one section, their kids and wives in another. The kids cried. There were a lot of kids, two to three years old up to five, and babies. A bad experience for kids, Sixto thought. They don’t understand.

Who’s hungry? the guards would say. Sixto and other detainees would raise a hand.

Come here. OK, take all these.

Sixto and the other volunteers carried boxes of Maruchan Instant Lunch ramen noodle soup to the detainees in their cellblock.

Sixto slept in a cold room. The shine of the white walls gave him a headache. He never saw the sun. The noise of doors closing, people shouting, overwhelmed him. The plastic plates smelled. The guards served Kool-Aid. Most of the detainees got frustrated and agreed to sign out and be deported. Sixto’s mother visited him and cried. She never thought one of her sons would be in a place she considered a jail.

Sixto got to know one Filipino man who appeared before an immigration judge. The judge, Sixto says, ordered him to leave the country. That night, the man fell out of a top bunk bed and injured himself. He was transferred to a hospital, delaying his deportation.

Then there was this guy from Mexico. He called his wife, told her to sell their car and truck to pay the rent.

Hey, Sixto, the guy said. Give me two thousand dollars for my car. If you get out before me, give the money to my wife.

No, I don’t want the car, Sixto said.

Fifteen days later the guy was released.

Another man’s wife made tamales to pay the rent.

Three weeks after he was detained, Sixto was released with an order to appear before a Phoenix immigration judge. He had lost ten pounds. He returned home and hired Penalosa. He was allowed a work permit while his case went through the courts.

“I’m here,” he’d tell his family. “I’m not going anywhere.”


In October 2012, Cynthia Paz, then eighteen, testified before an immigration judge that if her father was deported she would suffer financial and emotional hardship. She said he provided child support for Ian and also helped care for him.

Alondra, fifteen, testified that she had a good relationship with her father and that he supported her financially and emotionally.

Sixto testified that he had lived in the US since 1986. He owned a home and paid a mortgage of $812 a month. He owned a 2003 Chevy and a 2008 Dodge super-duty truck. He had a 401(k) plan worth about eight thousand dollars. He had about six hundred dollars in savings. He paid child support. He had studied English for eight months at a community college.

When asked by the court if he could find work in Mexico, Sixto testified that the roofing systems he installed and the building materials he used would not be available there. He did not think he could support his family. Sixto argued that the court should not underestimate the importance of a father to the lives of his children.

The court found that Sixto and his daughters provided credible testimony. It did not, however, conclude that his children would suffer “unconscionable” hardship should he be deported. The court denied Sixto’s application.

In March 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed the court’s decision and gave Sixto sixty days to voluntarily leave the US.

Sixto sought a stay of removal from the Department of Homeland Security. The department denied his request but determined that he was not a priority for removal, citing his lack of a criminal record. He remained in Arizona.

In February 2015, Cynthia turned twenty-one and submitted a family petition on behalf of her father. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the benefits arm of the Department of Homeland Security, approved the petition and granted Sixto a work permit. But ICE, the department’s enforcement unit, opposed the motion to reopen and convinced the Board of Immigration appeals not to consider the case.

Sixto then turned to the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals. When the court denied his request in May 2016, he walked into Shadow Rock Church.

“With a case like this, we need the community to support us and pressure the authorities,” Penalosa told me. “Just me and the church advocating for Sixto is not going to persuade them. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it is.”


Sixto’s daughter Cynthia, twenty-three, remembers that her father took her and Alondra to a mall the night he told them he might have to move into Shadow Rock. He broke the news as he looked for a parking spot. It was his only option, he said. Cynthia cried. She’d had a high school friend who got deported as soon as she started driving. Her friend had been heading home from work and got stopped. That was it. She was gone.

Cynthia feels very close to her father. She doesn’t understand why the immigration court and the Department of Homeland Security would not accept her petition. She worries about him. He’s not the type of person to sit around and do nothing. Sanctuary sounded like a prison. She works as a medical assistant. When would she have time to see him? Only weekends?

When Sixto told his boss he had to go into sanctuary, his boss told him to seek the advice of a lawyer. Sixto told him he had a lawyer and that his lawyer had just called and said to get to Shadow Rock.

Sixto finished the day’s roofing job and drove home. Showered, grabbed a change of clothes. His brother drove him to the church. Sixto felt weird, sad, when he left his house. He couldn’t believe it. Looking out the window of the truck, he already felt separated from the world. He had never expected this. Not after living in Phoenix for so long. Everything seemed to be on his side and then it wasn’t. Good job, his family doing well—what happened? He didn’t understand.

Ismael met him at the church and let him in.

Your case is easy, everything will work out, he told Sixto.

Ismael showed him his room. Sixto lay down and stared at the ceiling in the dark. He told himself, This is not my home.

The next morning, he woke up at six. He walked around the church, wandered up the cactused hills behind it, and watched the sun rise and shadows retreat like water pulled back from shore by an undertow. In the light, he noticed someone had vandalized a table near the church playground. Maybe he could fix it. Something to do.

Sixto’s life soon fell into a pattern. Ismael helped him establish a routine. Get up early, drink coffee. Shower, slip on a t-shirt, jeans. Run a comb through his thick head of dark hair. Shave and trim his mustache. Read the Bible, make breakfast. Walk around outside. BS with Ismael, watch a little TV, play basketball on the court in back of the church. Help with general maintenance. Sometimes people from the congregation dropped by and wished him well. Everything happens for a reason, he told himself.

Sixto Paz and Ismael Delgado at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ. Ismael spent more than a year in sanctuary at the church as he fought deportation.

He and Ismael talked about what they would do when they won their court cases and left the church. They’d organize a big fiesta. They’d butcher a calf and cook all day. They’d get ice and buy a lot of beer and invite all their friends. Travel the country and visit all the people in sanctuary. They agreed that the first to leave Shadow Rock would help the one left behind.

Days passed, then weeks and months. Sixto had told his brother he’d be in sanctuary for two weeks max, but the authorities refused to reopen Sixto’s case. Soon it was November, then December. Christmas weeks away. Sixto missed his family more than ever. So did Ismael, but he caught a break. His lawyer had reached an arrangement with ICE. Ismael could go home.

Like Sixto, Ismael is stocky and has short black hair combed to one side. He laughs easily. He has lived in the US since 1991. He owns his home, is married, and has a daughter.

Ismael’s problems with immigration began when the police stopped him in 2009 for a traffic violation. They checked his ID and saw he was undocumented. He then had three court hearings in six years. In 2015, an immigration judge gave him sixty days to voluntarily leave the US. A lawyer advised him to seek sanctuary at Shadow Rock. After six months of living in the church, Ismael met with his attorney to discuss his options. As they talked, Ismael mentioned he and his brother had been mugged at gunpoint in 2008. His lawyer told him he was eligible for a U visa, a non-immigrant visa for victims of crimes. Ismael applied.

In December 2016, during a Sunday church service, Ismael’s lawyer announced to the Shadow Rock congregation that ICE had determined Ismael could remain in Phoenix without threat of deportation while authorities reviewed his U visa application.

Ismael had not expected the announcement. He embraced Sixto. He knew what his friend was feeling. Sixto would be alone now. Ismael promised to visit.

The morning he left, Sixto patted Ismael on the back like a father encouraging a son.

Don’t be afraid, he said.

They prayed together.

Sixto watched Ismael’s wife drive him away.


Alondra Paz is nineteen but looks much younger. She remembers a high school friend whose mother was deported to Mexico. Her friend would tell Alondra about her mother and cry. Maybe she’ll come back, Alondra would say, but she didn’t believe it.

Her father, Alondra recalls, liked to play pranks when she was younger. They’d walk into a store and if he didn’t see someone standing at the counter, he would ring the bell long and hard. When the salesperson appeared, he’d say Alondra had rung it. The kid in him came out all the time. He was very supportive, too. He attended all of Alondra’s soccer and softball games.

Alondra never saw her father as a citizen or a non-citizen. He was her dad, no more, no less. He wasn’t different than other dads. Everything he had he earned. It never occurred to her that he might be deported.

He used to go out of town for a lot of roofing jobs. One time, he said he was going to Maryland. If anything happens to me, stay calm, be strong, he said. Alondra was very young then, but she had a sense that he wasn’t talking about getting hurt on the job or injured in a car accident. It was something else, something bigger. She didn’t understand. She thinks now her father knew that one day he would face an immigration judge.

After the border patrol stopped him in Yuma, Sixto called Alondra and Cynthia from Florence. Everything will be fine, he said.

Alondra attended her father’s court hearings. She was so mad. Did the judge not have a family? She could barely contain herself. She thought it was cruel.

In 2016, Alondra graduated from college, a month after her father entered sanctuary. He couldn’t attend her graduation. So sad, she says, that he was not there to hug her. She came to the church afterward.

I graduated, she told him.

It wasn’t the same. She would never have a photo of him with her in her cap and gown.

I know, he told her.

She showed him her diploma. She had worked hard, had gotten good grades.

Sometimes, Alondra receives calls from strangers. They ask, Where is your father? Text message, too, with the same question. Alondra has no idea who these people are, what they want.


Christmas 2016. Ismael gone. Sixto had never felt so lonely. He missed everything about his family. Going to church. Watching them open their presents. The big dinner. The laughter, the hugs. He paced back and forth like a chained dog. It was his first Christmas without them. He tried to read the Bible but he could not concentrate. Why, why? he asked himself. He didn’t have any answer. The only answer was to stay at Shadow Rock. His daughters visited and brought Ian. That helped. New Year’s Day was better. His brother stayed with him for three days. They ate tamales and posole.

When his brother left, Sixto felt like garbage. Alone again. He had busted his ass all these years and hadn’t done anything wrong and yet someone high above him said he had. He wasn’t a criminal but he was being treated like one. Sometimes, he thinks he should just go. Leave the church, feel better. But go where?

Once a week, a church volunteer works with him on his English. He speaks English but he wants to improve. Some verbs in the past and present tenses throw him.

A gray owl crashed into a church window the other night. Sixto heard a hard noise. He walked around the church with a flashlight and found the dazed owl in a window well. He photographed it with his cell phone and then carried it to the branch of a small tree to save it from coyotes. He decided that branch wasn’t high enough and moved it to another. The owl gripped the branch with its talons. It turned its head to Sixto, its big eyes unblinking. In the morning it was gone.


Arlene Dominguez, the director of Shadow Rock Sanctuary Ministry and a member of the church for the past twenty-five years, meets with Sixto almost every day.

She tells me every sanctuary case is different. The second man the church provided sanctuary to was single and had no family in the States. Yet, ICE determined not to remove him. Sixto has a family, a job, pays taxes, has lived in Phoenix for a long time, and ICE wants to throw him out. Arlene doesn’t get it.

This morning she ate breakfast with him. Burger King, Sixto’s favorite. He had hoped to repair the church roof. Ismael was going to come by and help but then it started raining. Too bad. Arlene likes seeing Ismael. When he visits, he wanders the halls like a dog sniffing old scents. He can’t believe he spent more than a year here.

Better stay inside, Arlene told Sixto. You don’t want to get on a ladder and slip and fall.

I ask Arlene if she moved to Phoenix from Mexico. No, she tells me. She was born in Arizona, has lived here all her life. Her mother also. Her father hails from Texas. Arlene’s paternal grandfather had an extended family in Juarez. Arlene and her parents and siblings would visit them. Arlene can remember the tiny house where eight of her cousins and aunts and uncles lived. They all worked in hotels, cleaning. When the kids were old enough, they worked in hotels, too. Arlene’s life might have been no different had she not been born in the States.

The other day, Arlene spent a weekend in Rocky Point, Mexico, a place sometimes called Arizona’s beach getaway. All these luxurious hotels. Beyond the hotels, she saw Mexican men and women living in shacks. A friend told her they earn about seventy dollars a week as laborers.

“You can’t live on that,” Arlene says. “They come here for a chance.”

She doesn’t think they’re asking a whole lot.

Sixto Paz in his makeshift room at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, where he has sought sanctuary against deportation since May 2016.

Periodically, Shadow Rock offers shelter to homeless people and Sixto helps set up cots. They can stay about one week. Sixto talks to them. They ask him if they can use the restroom, take a bottle of water.

Yes, why not? Sixto tells them. Take what you need.

He remembers one family with two daughters and two grandsons. They avoided talking to him. They didn’t speak Spanish and he thinks they presumed he wouldn’t understand them. He felt their discomfort and left them alone.

In an arrangement ICE made with the church, immigrant families released from the Florence detention center can stay at Shadow Rock for a few days if they have no other place to go. They come from all over, Sixto says. Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. Some speak only Mayan dialect and Sixto doesn’t understand them. Others ask to call family in the States. Sixto lets them use his phone. One guy was going to stay with relatives in Idaho while he waited to appear in immigration court, another in Iowa, still another in Texas. Sixto listens to their stories. It took some of them two weeks to cross Mexico to the US border. One man said he paid a coyote eight thousand dollars. The coyote took the money and called the man’s family and demanded more.

What are you doing here? a Honduran man asked Sixto.

They want to send me to Mexico.

Why? What did you do?

Nothing. I’ve lived here twenty-five years.

You have too many years here. Why would they send you away?

Because they want to.


Sixto spends part of each day meditating. He sits outside on a rock overlooking the basketball court for hours. He notices people walking on a nearby street. He sees people driving, leading regular lives, while he can’t go anywhere.

He thinks about his 86-year-old father and his mother. Sixto worries his father might die before he leaves the church. His parents were sick his first month in sanctuary. His mother has diabetes. His father wasn’t eating. Sixto wants his father to know Ian.

He thinks of his son. Ian needs him. A week before my arrival, Ian stayed with Sixto for a few days. Ian played. Indoor golf, baseball, football, basketball. He raced around on a scooter. He watched his father dig a drainage ditch and picked small rocks out of the ditch. When Sixto finished digging, he began work in the playground. He replaced sand that had washed away with a recent rain. He fixed the steps to a slide. Then Ian went home.

Sixto thinks about his job. There’s a lot of roofing work in Phoenix. His boss is looking for people. He doesn’t have enough workers.

Letting out a long breath, Sixto stares at the sky. He sees falcons circling, no clouds. Tranquility. He closes his eyes. In his mind, he glides with the falcons. He feels air. He feels freedom.

J. Malcolm Garcia

J. Malcolm Garcia is the author most recently of The Fruit of All My Grief: Lives in the Shadows of the American Dream (Seven Stories Press 2019). Garcia is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best American Essays.

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2 Comments on “Sanctuary

  1. I stumble across this post today. Was so sad, but very interesting and challenging. it is a very moving story.
    It is about time for men to dig their history and ask lots of families to go back home to Europe where they came from. Lots of Americans are made from Irish who fled to America many a history ago. If to say so, South Americans are more Americans than them. It is about time for men to dig their history, pack themselves and go back home, but if men don’t follow their history, the world will never be at peace. Irish-Americans are telling South “Americans” to go back home, therefore who are more Americans? – Irish-Americans from Ireland or South-Americans? from the South of America? North America and South America is one land, divided by greed and greedy men calling themselves politicians. Be North or be South, they are all one people, they are all Americans. It is about time for history to be debated and put it in its right context!

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