Church Community Rallies Around North Carolina Pastor Seeking Sanctuary From Deportation

A small Latino evangelical congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina, is missing its religious leader, after their pastor sought sanctuary and sequestered himself at a religious institution in nearby Durham to avoid deportation.

“We really miss him, he’s a good man, a man of God, we’re fasting and praying for him,” said parishioner Mercedes Santos, from the Iglesia Evangélica Jesús el Pan de Vida, about their pastor José Chicas. She spoke to NBC News by phone from Raleigh, where the congregation was planning a vigil Friday evening in support of the pastor and his family.

Chicas, married and a father of four, left his native El Salvador and came to the United States thirty-two years ago, crossing the Mexican border. He has been a pastor of a Hispanic congregation for several years and the family converted to evangelical Christianity in 2001.

Chicas was detained upon crossing the border in Texas in 1985 and was released on bail, but he never went before the judge assigned to his case; Chicas attributed his absence in court to faulty legal advice. Because of this he received a deportation order for crossing the border illegally.

According to his current attorney Helen Parsonage, Chicas applied for asylum shortly after his arrival and was granted a social security number, yearly work permits and has paid taxes all along.

He subsequently moved to North Carolina where he raised his family. In recent years, Chicas had been placed on an order of supervision and was reporting to immigration yearly and still had a valid work permit.

Chicas and his family say his story is about a man who has turned his life around. He was previously arrested for DUI more than 25 years ago, and faced domestic abuse charges in 1998 involving his current wife.

Chicas said these are reasons for which he is now considered a priority for removal under the Trump administration’s new guidelines.

“But I’m not a criminal, I don’t have weapons, I don’t sell drugs,” Chicas said.

His wife, Sandra Marquina, told NBC News that “God changed him and saved our marriage. We all make mistakes —but we must give opportunities to good people, that’s what we’re asking for.”

This was an opportunity that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, director of Durham's School of Conversion, a faith-based organization, decided to offer Chicas upon learning of his case.

“He’s a good father, brother and pastor for his church,” Wilson-Hartgrove said.

Parsonage, his attorney, told NBC News by phone that "he's a good example of someone who has been in this country with the knowledge and consent of immigration since 1985. He's a pillar of his community, a contributor and a taxpayer who has followed all the rules, it's an absurdity to remove him after all this time."

Chicas has been living at the School of Conversion since late June. “This is such a beautiful country, but now we’re living in a country that is chasing out all of us who are undocumented,” Chicas said in an interview to Telemundo and NBC News.

The pastor's son, 11, spent several days with his father at the religious institution, the family said, because he missed his father.

For Marquina, her husband’s deportation would be disastrous for her family. “’Life in [El Salvador] is so dangerous, we couldn’t send our children there,” Marquina said. Three of their four children were born in the U.S.

Last week, Marquina went to the office of Rep. David Price (D-NC) to ask the congressman to support her husband’s case. NBC News called Rep. Price’s office, but has not received a response at the time of this writing.

Since Chicas is currently not in custody of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency cannot discuss his case specifically. But in an e-mail to NBC News, ICE spokesperson Bryan D. Cox said that generally, “a final order of removal issued by a federal judge does not expire. That judicial order will remain in effect no matter how long any person may choose to remain in a sensitive location.”

ICE’s “sensitive locations policy,” dictates that immigration enforcement actions at churches and schools should generally be avoided. This policy is the reason undocumented immigrants have sought refuge in sanctuary churches all around the country in recent years.

Marquina prays for a miracle, saying it’s all in God’s hands. “Members ask me, ‘Sister Sandra, when is the pastor coming back?’ I want to tell them he’ll be coming back soon, but only God knows.”

Chicas said, “We’re good people in this state, working hard, praying for this state, praying for the U.S.A."

"I don’t want to go back to my country," he added. "I have my family over here. I have my wife, my children —I have a little child, 11 years old, he needs me here.”

Rebeka Smyth contributed to this story.