Parishioners and community members gathered Friday morning to welcome Sulficio, the 37-year-old owner of a plastering and drywall company, into the church.
Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, spoke about what he called an “arbitrary, unjust and cruel deportation regime,” separating families under the Trump administration.
Last year, thousands of immigrant children across the country were separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which sought to criminally prosecute anyone who crosses the border without documentation. Despite declaring an official end to the policy, the administration has continued to separate hundreds of children from families, according to recent news reports.
“They are not strangers to us. They are part of our family,” said the Rev. Steven Thomason, dean and rector of Saint Mark’s. “All people are worthy of our love here.”
“We say yes today. We say yes to Jaime,” Thomason said to the hundreds of parishioners and community members gathered there who erupted in a round of applause.
Sulficio’s lawyer, Lori Walls of the Washington Immigration Defense Group, says under current law, despite having no criminal record, Sulficio’s only option is to apply for discretionary stays of removal. He has been applying for such "stays" since 2012. His last application, however, was denied.
In a November letter, Bryan Wilcox of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Sulficio that although he had been awarded successive stays, such allowances “are not intended to be perpetual or never-ending.” He also noted that Sulficio had previously expressed his intention to move to Mexico if ICE denied him permission to remain in the U.S.
The family argues that they cannot relocate to Mexico and receive the proper medical care for his wife, Keiko Maruyama, who suffers from epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is a long history of churches operating as safe houses. The Bible refers to churches as cities of refuge where those accused of murder could safely await trial. In the 19th century, American churches hid runaway slaves. In the 1980s, hundreds of churches supported the so-called sanctuary movement in an attempt to save Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict from deportation.
Locally, in 2017, the Church Council of Greater Seattle relaunched the sanctuary movement. Churches across the country, from New York to Chicago to Seattle, have opted to hide immigrants from the government. According to World Church Service, approximately 50 people are currently taking sanctuary in a church.
Wearing a sharp blue suit with a long-sleeve, white shirt underneath, Sulficio stood in front of the congregation and, first, apologized for his accent. English is his second language, he explained.
Dressed in all black, his wife, a naturalized citizen, stood by her husband’s side, holding on to his arm, as he spoke about what living in the U.S. had meant to him. Hard work, honesty and integrity had been keys to his success, he said.
In addition to owning his own business, Sulficio taught Latin dance. He and his wife share a love of dancing, he said, noting that the shared passion was one reason their romance had flourished 10 years ago.
As the subject turned to his son and the son's first kindergarten performance, Sulficio’s voice cracked. Sulficio said after the performance he had spotted his son searching for him and couldn’t help but think about what would happen when he could no longer support him in the same way, by attending school functions.
Although grateful for the community’s support, Sulficio said he knows the resurgence of the sanctuary movement in U.S. churches isn’t just about him, but about the millions of others “trying to find a humane solution for their immigration status.”
With tears streaming down her face, Maruyama briefly talked about “this place we call our home,” before becoming so emotional that she was almost inaudible.
The Rev. Joanne Engquist, pastor at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, a congregation that nine months ago took in an undocumented immigrant — Jose A. Robles — spoke about her experience. She described Robles as a “hardworking family man” and said sanctuary was a necessary but difficult living situation for him and others to sustain. Because he fears leaving, Robles remains at the church today.
“You are authors of this new story,” Ramos added. “In the end, justice will prevail.”
After the press conference, Sulficio explained that he had grown up with little education in an impoverished, rural area. He began working at age 11. When he arrived in the U.S., he said, he tried to better himself by taking English as a second language classes. Eventually, he met his wife and the two started a family.
Around 2010, however, his mother became ill, so he traveled back to Mexico to see her. When he returned to the U.S., Sulficio was detained. He was later released on bond and has been applying for stays of deportation ever since.
The couple is still trying to find the right way to break the news to their son that, for the foreseeable future, Sulficio will remain in hiding, living in a church. The family will be allowed to visit.
“Those details will come every day,” Maruyama said in an interview after the welcoming ceremony.
For now, she has tried to explain to her son that though he is American, Mexican and Japanese, his father is different because “you and I have papers.”
“Papa is still working on that,” she said she told her son. “It will take a long time, but we will work together to get the paper.”
In the meantime, community members have rallied around the family. Caleb Marshall, executive director of Rebuilding Together Seattle, a local nonprofit organization working to address substandard housing conditions that can lead to homelessness, is one of many who have written to the Department of Homeland Security, imploring the agency not to deport Sulficio. Sulficio has volunteered for the organization.
“His commitment to our neighbors and to the community has been exemplary and quintessentially ‘American’ in the way he has cared for those less fortunate than himself, including veterans of our armed services, senior citizens and others living in abject poverty,” Marshall wrote earlier this month in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security.
“If we lose Jaime as a volunteer of our organization, as a business owner and tradesman, as a loving father and husband, and as a member of this community, the biggest consequences will be felt by us; we will feel his loss the most,” he continued.
“It will be Yoshi, growing up without a father, and being placed at risk of falling into a cycle of poverty and experiencing adverse childhood trauma,” he added, referring to Sulficio’s son. “It will be Keiko, who’s mental and physical well-being will be challenged daily. It will be the people Jaime employs that will lose their jobs.”
For now, Maruyama will have to make do on her own, raising her son mostly alone.
When asked how long he planned to remain in sanctuary, Sulficio said: “Before anything, I love my family and son. I will do whatever it takes to be with them through the end.”