A plastic card bearing red, white and blue flags helped Elmer Peña Peña buy a house, work for a mattress company and pay taxes on those wages.
He followed almost all of America’s rules despite breaking the law to get here.
Then he received orders from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to return to El Salvador.
He never considered obeying the deportation order.
Peña Peña, 37, a married father of three, recently became the first person known to seek protection from ICE at a Colorado Springs church. In doing so, he turned to a movement pitting certain religious leaders against President Donald Trump and the immigration crackdown he promised in his campaign for the White House.
Peña Peña spends his days shaded by light filtering through 19th-century stained glass at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, roughly 70 miles from his family in Aurora. He sits in the foyer, adjusting the rabbit ears on a television tuned to Telemundo and scrolling on his smartphone.
He whiles away hours reading his Bible, downloading audio devotions in his native language and scratching at coloring books with his 3-year-old son’s Crayola set. He sleeps in the reverend’s cluttered office as repairs are made to the church’s flood-damaged basement — where he hopes to take up residence in the next month.
He’s grateful for this sanctuary provided by the goodwill of strangers. And yet, to him, it feels a lot like jail.
In Aurora, his wife works and pays the mortgage. His two other American-born children and stepson attend school.
“There’s times where I want to just bust out running out of here, to be free,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter. “This effort (to avoid deportation) is for my wife and my children, and our home. I don’t want them to be out on the street.”
He isn’t the only unhappy person.
One of the Colorado Springs Sanctuary Coalition’s members, First United Methodist Church, dropped out shortly after Peña Peña sought refuge.
The decision came amid tensions at First United Methodist, where several congregants voiced concerns about the church taking part in the politically charged issue.
While some supported the move, others feared legal blowback.
Many argued against offering safe harbor on the false assumption that only people who have committed felonies are facing deportation, said the Rev. Tiffany Keith, First United Methodist’s associate pastor.
Instead, the church will host classes and dinner discussions on the nation’s immigration policy, the work of immigration agents and the hardships that immigrants face.
“I knew this church was not at a point where it was ready to be all in,” Keith said.
The same tensions have yet to surface among the coalition’s three remaining members: All Souls, First Congregational Church and the Colorado Springs Friends Meeting, a Quaker institution.
If anything, attendance at the Rev. Dr. Nori Rost’s worship services is on the rise.
“We believe that this is a justice issue, and no human is illegal,” said Rost, All Souls’ parish minister.
Fleeing death threats
Peña Peña faced deportation before.
The first time came days after crossing the border illegally in 2001. Immigration agents caught him within two days and swiftly sent him back.
Back in his hometown of Ilobasco, El Salvador, he faced death threats from regional gangs because he wouldn’t join either the one where he lived or the one where he worked.
“That’s why I came back to the United States, because I couldn’t survive in El Salvador,” he said.
He scrounged together $1,500 — most of which came from a cousin living in Aurora — and paid a “coyote” for passage into the United States.
He joined a friend from El Salvador and 10 strangers from Mexico. Crossing the border proved easy, he said — the trouble came in El Paso, Texas.
A half hour after the coyote left them at a nondescript ranch, immigration agents swooped in. Only Peña Peña and his friend escaped by crawling through a hole in the kitchen to the roof, he said.
Once the agents left, Peña Peña ran. They didn’t stop until dawn.
“We thought we were going to die, we were so cold,” Peña Peña said.
A local man later provided safe quarters in his van, and a passing trucker gave them a lift to Houston. A friend then drove him to San Antonio, where his cousin arranged for a ride to Aurora.
Several times — in the van, at a highway weigh station — agents almost discovered them. Each time, they escaped capture.
Raising a family
Life slowed in suburban Colorado.
He got married and had three children. He took any job he could — building houses, painting houses, cooking in an Indian buffet, landscaping at a golf course. He got a couple of traffic tickets and paid them without hassle.
“The boss taught us how to play some golf,” he said, laughing.
But in 2012, a decision to drive straight through a right turn-only lane nearly forced him once more to El Salvador.
The Aurora police officer who pulled him over refused to write a ticket, despite his pleas to be cited and released, he said.
“He told me right away he was going to deport me,” Peña Peña said. “I told him I have a family, I have a wife, I have children. Give me an opportunity to pay for the ticket for the infraction.
“He said I did not have the right to ask for that. He acted as though he was ICE.”
The officer turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and he said he spent the next six months in detention seeking political asylum.
The details of his release are unclear — even he is slightly confused how he won release.
Ever since then, however, he has applied for stays of deportation — essentially, one-year delays in being forced back to El Salvador. The process, for which he paid $2,000 annually for an attorney’s help, became routine. Doing so opened the door to getting a mortgage and a job at Simmons mattress company.
He earned about $37,000 a year working 12 hours a day, six days a week — barely enough to top the federal poverty level for a household of six.
And he was content.
He even applied for — and received — visas for his parents to visit from El Salvador.
“They said I live like a prince — like a president,” Peña Peña said, his eyes welling with tears. “Because life is very poor over there.”
System no longer predictable
Despite years of routine approvals, three months ago immigration agents denied his latest stay of deportation — part of an emerging trend under the Trump administration, local immigration attorneys say.
Trump campaigned on the promise to crack down on undocumented immigrants, referring to those from Mexico as “bad hombres,” criminals and rapists. Along with taking jobs from Americans, Trump has asserted that they commit violent crimes and have made the U.S. awash in illegal drugs.
Since his election, though, Trump has vacillated on his pledge to make Mexico pay for a wall along its border with the U.S. and has debated granting “good” undocumented immigrants leniency.
Before his election, the stay process was completely discretionary — often giving preference to people with compelling reasons to remain in the United States, such as American-born children. Anyone with drunken driving, domestic violence or other serious convictions were typically denied.
“There’s no run-of-the-mill situation where ICE is required to grant a stay,” said Stephanie Izaguirre, a Colorado Springs immigration attorney who has offered guidance to the coalition.
“One of the really good things that President Obama did was they kind of laid out some criteria,” Izaguirre added. “In general, if you don’t have any of these quote-unquote bad things in your history, your stay will probably be approved.
“That made the system predictable, and so that made it easier for people to understand.”
That predictability ended with Trump’s inauguration, which also heralded a return of the sanctuary church movement, said Eric Pavri, a Catholic Charities of Central Colorado immigration attorney.
The concept arose from a Reagan-era Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy dissuading agents from conducting operations in a few “sensitive locations,” including hospitals, schools and churches. Back then, churches gave sanctuary to refugees fleeing violence in Central America.
“Now, since the election of Donald Trump, churches around the country have been sort of picking up that banner,” Pavri said, who has also advised the coalition.
The “sensitive locations” policy remains in place, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s website.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The policy isn’t law, meaning the agency could always reverse course and make arrests inside churches, such as All Souls, attorneys say. But they’d still need a warrant signed by a federal judge to do so.
Taking no chances, All Souls’ doors have been plastered with signs warning immigration agents not to enter, unless they have such a warrant. And church volunteers carefully vet each person entering the building.
But agents know Peña Peña is there.
The coalition immediately informed Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers of their guest’s presence — a tactic to guard against the federal charge of harboring an illegal alien, Pavri said. They can’t be harboring, he said, if they don’t keep it a secret.
Among the three remaining churches, only All Souls agreed to host immigrants. They’ve since received one emailed threat of “death and destruction” that Rost waved off, just like past threats against the church.
“The only thing those emails have in common is bad spelling,” Rost said.
The church plans to shelter one family at a time. People with recent violent criminal records are not offered refuge, though decades-old convictions can be considered on a case-by-case basis, Rost said.
Visitors can stay for three months, after which coalition leaders will review the case and decide whether to grant an extension.
Whether Peña Peña can bear to stay that long is in question.
“Essentially, he’s under house arrest,” Rost said. “It can take a toll on a person emotionally to feel so housebound or churchbound. So sometimes people choose to leave, and that’s their choice.”
Lumping good with bad
Peña Peña was more emphatic.
“In a way, it’s even worse than house arrest, because in house arrest, you have your stuff at your place,” he said.
He fears that by not working, his family will lose their house. Financial help from a friend is expected to run out at the end of the year, Peña Peña said.
He pleaded for Trump to deport hardened criminals, not him.
“There’s no security in my country,” he said. “And I think most people are looking for the opportunity to work and live. We want to work legally. And there are people who do bad things. There’s always good people and bad people.”
“The problem is the president right now is lumping good and bad together to send them out,” he said.
He dug once more into his wallet for another card — this time a driver’s license.
It would have come in handy five years ago when that Aurora police officer arrested him.
Back then, such licenses were unavailable. A state program offering them to undocumented immigrants did not exist.
That’s since changed — like so much else in Peña Peña’s life.
“Now I don’t have a chance to drive,” he says, chuckling at the irony. “I was trusting. I had my permit, I could drive.
“Now I have nothing.”