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Ecuadorian father has spent 500 days living in a church, waiting for day in court

Fourteen-year-old Arlly Pinos hopes a hearing in St. Paul will allow her father to reunite with their family.

Fourteen-year-old Arlly Pinos hopes a hearing in St. Paul will allow her father to reunite with their family. Hannah Jones

On Monday afternoon, 17-year-old Kelly and 14-year-old Arlly Pinos stood close to one another in front of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Minneapolis office. They were there to implore the state of Minnesota to let their father come home.

Their father, Nelson, was just a little older than Kelly when he came to the city to visit friends and family in 1994. He had immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador just a year earlier. He’d spent it living in New York and working in an Italian restaurant.

But this particular visit ended in an encounter with immigration officials when he was heading downtown on Chicago Avenue. Nelson happens to be undocumented.

He had limited English and hadn’t been entirely certain what was going on, but he was eventually able to go on his way. He didn’t find out until years later that after that encounter, the officials sent an order to appear in court to an address in Minnesota – where Nelson didn’t live. It had gone unanswered, which means Nelson was served with a deportation order in absentia.

For nearly 20 years, Nelson continued living his life unaware that he was on borrowed time. He settled in Connecticut, got a job at a factory, and fathered three children – Kelly, Arlly, and Daniel, who is now 6. It wasn’t until 2012 that he found out he had been ordered out of the country.

On the advice of an attorney, he turned himself in to Immigrations Customs Enforcement – better known as ICE. The hope was that a law-abiding, taxpaying father of three U.S. citizens wouldn’t be high on ICE’s list for deportation. That may have been true at the time, but things were about to change.

In 2017, the Trump administration cracked down on immigration enforcement. Authorities were no longer looking for undocumented immigrants with some kind of criminal history. They were looking for undocumented immigrants, period. In October of that year, Nelson showed up for his regular check-in with ICE and was ordered to leave the country by the end of November – three and a half weeks before Christmas.

A 2018 New York Times op-ed written by Kelly recalls seeing a monitor snapped onto his right ankle, and the time they spent weeping in one another’s arms afterward.

“Going to Ecuador would be devastating to our family,” she wrote. “My siblings and I were born in New Haven, and our entire life is here… my little brother and sister hardly know how to speak Spanish. In two years I’ll be able to go to college, and my father didn’t want to ruin all that by taking us back to Ecuador.”

Nor did he want to abandon his family.

On the dawn of November 30, 2017, Nelson drove to First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in New Haven. The reason why goes back to 2011, when a memo from ICE’s then-director John Morton instructed officers not to wrangle undocumented immigrants out of “sensitive locations,” like schools, hospitals, and churches.

He had gone to First and Summerfield to seek sanctuary. And to his immense relief, he received it. He was moved into an upper room with a bed, a coffee table, and a couch. As long as the monitor on his ankle showed he was still on church property, ICE could not collect him. But he had no way of knowing how long that would be, and to what end.

In the meantime, his family had to carry on with Nelson half there, half not. The family told young Brandon that his father was just working at the church, but he kept asking why he never came home to them at night. When it came time for Nelson to teach the boy how to ride a bike, they did it in the church basement.

For about a year and a half – over 500 days – Nelson missed school plays, award ceremonies, and soccer practices. Arlly worries about her middle-school graduation in June, and whether her father will be there. Kelly wrote about how difficult she found it to concentrate on her grades even as her father exhorted her from afar to keep working hard. Life became one long waiting game – a stalemate between the Pinos family and ICE.

Now things are heading toward the endgame. Kelly, Arlly, and a small army of Nelson’s allies in faith and legal groups gathered outside Klobuchar’s office on Monday because of a big event happening the next day. Nelson’s lawyers are going to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul to argue on his behalf. Their hope is to a convince a panel of judges to finally give Nelson his day in court: the one he missed back in 1994.

Whether he’ll be allowed to stay in the country is another question entirely. For now, there is hope among this little band that Nelson will be given one day to make his case, to explain why he wants to remain in the country where he raised his family.

And in his absence, his family is asking for him.

“My father is the strongest man I know,” Arlly said to the assembled crowd on Monday. Give him the chance, she said, to let him come home.