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Standing With Rosa 

A new book highlights the story of an undocumented immigrant who spent 461 days in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian

From 2014 to 2015, Rosa Robles Loreto, an undocumented immigrant, wife and mother of two, sought sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church. For 461 consecutive days, Robles Loreto remained within the confines of the church walls, as legal battles to reverse her final order of deportation were fought. Numerous organizations and individuals banded together during her time spent in sanctuary to offer support. For Denise Holley, a retired reporter, volunteer with No More Deaths and member of Southside Presbyterian, Robles Loreto's time with the church carried a powerful message. In 2017, Holley penned her first book: Why The Undocumented Belong to America: The Experience of Rosa Robles Loreto and Eleven Million Others. Tucson Weekly talked with Holley to discuss Robles Loreto, immigration and our national immigration policy under the current administration.

What sparked your initial interest in immigration and immigration issues?

I began learning Spanish many years ago as a volunteer in New York. I've been learning Spanish and working on my language skills for a really long time. In my first job as a journalist, I edited a newsletter for California Human Development Corporation in Santa Rosa, Calif., an organization that trains farm workers for better jobs. During the amnesty program in the 1980s, we helped thousands of undocumented residents complete their legalization paperwork. I eventually helped start the first bilingual newspaper in Sonoma County.

Could you tell me a little bit more about Southside Presbyterian? How did Rosa connect with your church?

I belong to Southside Presbyterian Church, which granted sanctuary to Central American refugees in the 1980s. Southside Presbyterian revived that mission when the congregation chose to offer sanctuary to Rosa. ICE—Immigration Customs Enforcement—was not going to make a scene by going into a church and seizing Rosa. They respected the church, so as long as Rosa stayed on the grounds of the church, she was safe. 

What were your interactions with Rosa like? How did others in your congregation react to Rosa's presence? 

I used to bring vegetables to Rosa when she was staying in sanctuary with us. She liked to make her meals from scratch in the church kitchen, so I'd bring her things from the garden that she liked. People were always very welcoming and volunteered to help her, and a lot of volunteers stayed with her in the evenings. After some months, I finally said one day "Rosa, I need to write a book about you. Somebody needs to tell your story." Rosa is an example of why we should welcome immigrants. The problem was never with Rosa; the problem is with our immigration laws.

What lasting change emerged from Rosa's story? 

Her story reached across the country. She attracted attention from national media—she was in the Arizona Daily Star several times, she was in La Estrella, the Star's Spanish language newspaper, and the Presbyterian News Service published a story I wrote about her. A lot of people heard about her and knew her story. Rosa inspired me to want to share her story with a national audience. I want to help them understand why our immigration system is broken. She is one of two people who inspired me to write this book—the other person being Donald Trump.

How do you see immigration law changing?

Our current administration has tapped into a lot of mistrust and fear of immigrants, convincing people that because there are a few people who are criminals who come into the country illegally, that we should be suspicious of everyone who crosses the border. With Operation Streamline in full effect, undocumented immigrants who are apprehended are no longer simply deported. Instead, what now happens, is undocumented immigrants are criminally charged and then deported. This makes entering the United States legally in the future nearly impossible. 

What do you hope people take away from your book and Rosa's story?

What I want to emphasize is that our government has criminalized the process that built this country—the willingness of people who have little to come to this country and work hard with their hands to create a better life for their families. They embody the American Dream and they are not so different from the European ancestors of many of us who also fled poverty and persecution. I hope people who do not come into contact with immigrants, unlike most of us who live near the border, will meet immigrants in my book. Perhaps these stories might open their eyes and their hearts so they no longer see undocumented people as a threat. 

Why the Undocumented Belong to America is available at createspace.com

More by Elise McClain

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