Nelson Pinos, with his wife Elsa and son Brandon at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in September 2018. Lucy Gellman Pre-Pandemic File Photo.
Nelson Pinos survived nearly four years in sanctuary at a church in downtown New Haven. Multiple Christmases, birthdays, sanctuary concerts, legal battles and grassroots actions later, he is fighting to stay in this country from his own home, surrounded by members of his family.
On Saturday afternoon, city officials, organizers, legal advocates, members of Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), Connecticut Shoreline Invisible, First & Summerfield United Methodist Church and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal gathered outside the church to celebrate Pinos’ one-year stay of deportation. Pinos, an Ecuadorian immigrant and father of three who had planned to speak in person, attended via phone after learning he had been exposed to Covid-19 on Friday.
“I wanted to thank everybody that was there since day one,” he said on speakerphone. “It was a hard time but it was also a joy to meet all of you, to have [you] with me through these almost four years.”
Glenn Formica with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal at Saturday's press conference. Alma Mendoza Photo.
Pinos first took refuge in First & Summerfield in November 2017 after Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials issued deportation orders. At the time, he had been living in the United States since 1992 and working in a factory for 15 years. Restricted to the church, he slept each night in the same small bedroom on the building's second floor. In 2019, he began spending time between home and the church, fearing that he would never get a stay. His children, particularly his daughters, have been vocal about the trauma that they and their younger brother have experienced during that time.
Pinos’ attorney, Glenn Formica, described the battle to keep Pinos in the U.S. as “a relay race,” in which he picked up a legal baton that grassroots organizers and lawyers Tina Colón Williams and Yazmin Rodriguez carried bravely for years. He reminded attendees that Pinos’ case is not over—the year-long stay is part of a longer battle for permanent residency.
He pointed to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which passed under President Bill Clinton. The law, which he lambasted as antiquated and overdue for change, states that undocumented immigrants must return to their home countries for 10 years if they want to be considered for citizenship.
“That’s a decade,” Formica said. “Nelson would return to New Haven, to his family, when he was 57 years old. That’s why Nelson found his way to this church. He didn’t have a decade to give away.”
Kelly and Arlly Pinos with organizer Vanesa Suarez in October 2018. Suarez, who went on to co-found the Semilla Collective, has been a longtime and fierce advocate for Pinos. Lucy Gellman Pre-Pandemic File Photo.
Pinos also thanked organizers, congregants, and faith leaders for continuing to fight for him. When First & Summerfield first heard about his case three and a half years ago, members voted to take him in. One year became two, which became over three. Before taking sanctuary, Pinos worked in a factory for 15 years, was a homeowner, paid his taxes and showed up for routine appointments with ICE officials. He said the time in the church has been a nightmare for himself and his family.
Now with a year of freedom, he said he feels a sense of calm by going back home to his family. Over the phone, he expressed his love and appreciation towards all those who attended and activists who were organizing it, and had fought so hard for his freedom (read more about their work here, here, here and here). Though he was successfully granted a year, he added, the battle isn’t over yet.
“This is not the end, it’s the beginning, we have a long way to go” he said. “I hope it’s going to be the best for me.”
Members of ULA at Saturday's press conference.
Immigrant rights advocate Kica Matos, vice president of initiatives at the Vera Institute for Justice, opened her reflection on the sheer amount of time Pinos has spent in sanctuary.
“1,331 days, that is how long it took for Nelson to get a small window of justice,” she said. “Let’s continue to fight, let us wrap our arms around Nelson Pinos and his family. And let’s not give up, se puede!”
As the crowd cheered and clapped from the church's steps and sidewalk, Matos expressed her support towards Pinos. So did U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who pointed to the pain that Donald Trump’s administration inflicted upon immigrants and their families from 2016 through 2020. Of the many immigrants who publicly took sanctuary in Connecticut churches, Pinos is the last to leave.
“Others who similarly sought sanctuary around Connecticut to escape the brutality and cruelty of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “And we should never ever, go through that nightmare again in this great nation.”
“This is what a broken immigration system looks like when it separates people from their jobs, their homes, family, and forces them to leave,” he added.
Flippin, surrounded by photographs of the fight for Pinos' freedom during his time in sanctuary. Alma Mendoza Photo.
Pastor Vicky Flippin, who had been standing by their side throughout the press conference, said that the day was one of celebration. Flippin welcomed Pinos when he came into the church in November 2017; she has been one of his friends and fierce advocates since. She called it “an honor and a privilege to journey with this beautiful family.”
She did not hold back from talking about the hardship of Pinos' case, and the pain it has caused for his family and community. She looked to the thousands of advocates who have rallied, donated, and supported the Pinos family over the past four years—including many who risked arrest in New Haven and Hartford—and called on the federal government to do more than grant them a “very temporary bit of relief.”
“We’ve been through those moments of real hopelessness with this family, and we have cried tears of sadness with them,” she said. “And so today we have been crying some big old tears of joy. This is a good, good day.”
Alma Mendoza is a rising senior atMetropolitan Business Academy.This piece comes to the Arts Paper through a summer program for alumni Youth Arts Journalism Initiative (YAJI), a program of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. This year, YAJI has remained virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about the program here or by checking out the "YAJI" tag.