When looking at photos that captured the walkout organized by Unidad Latina en Acción a year earlier on his behalf, Nelson Pinos remarked, “I can’t tell [how many people there are]. It’s countless. It’s like a river of people.” 

Pinos remembers the protest on Sept. 20, 2018, when approximately 400 Yale students and community members marched to Old Campus, then around the New Haven Green to City Hall, and finally stopped on the steps of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church. They held up colorful posters that read “FAMILIES HAVE NO BORDERS” and “TODOS SOMOS HUMANOS.” They were joined by Pinos, who stood in the church that had been his sanctuary home for nearly 300 days at the time. 

Pinos, an immigrant from Ecuador, was originally detained in Minnesota in 1993. Since then, his lawyers have unsuccessfully attempted to appeal his order of removal. Facing deportation, he entered sanctuary at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in fall 2017. He has remained there since, and his case has been the subject of local protests and national news. 

“This [is a] fierce struggle with me being inside here and all of you being out in the streets,” Pinos said in April 2019. “This struggle is not just mine. This fight is all of ours.” 

Pinos is one of many New Haven residents whose lives have been interrupted by deportation proceedings, ULA organizer Vanesa Suarez told the News. Over the past two decades, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported over 1,100 undocumented immigrants in the greater New Haven area. 

Pinos’ battle began in 1993, when he was detained in Minneapolis visiting his brother-in-law. Immigration officials began processing his case. Pinos — who had been living in New York and working at an Italian restaurant since arriving in the country — traveled back to the East Coast, unaware of the proceedings against him.

Immigration officials in Minnesota continued without Pinos, and in 1994 issued an order of removal in absentia, meaning that Pinos was not present at the hearing. He did not know that this order existed until years later, Tina Colón Williams ’09 — one of Pinos’ attorneys — said in October 2018. Over the next two decades, Pinos had three children, all born in Elm City. Their artwork — a robot drawn in crayon, a sloth, a lion and a dinosaur figure — decorate the walls of his room in First and Summerfield Church. 

“I am doing this for them,” Pinos told the News in October 2018. 

In 2012, Pinos voluntarily turned himself into ICE in New York at the advice of a lawyer assisting him at the time. During this period, he was “not a priority for removal,” Williams said. As a father of three U.S. citizens, “he was not the kind of person that they would target their resources to remove from the country. So, he went ahead and turned himself in.”

Over the next several years, Pinos’ attorneys tried and failed to appeal the 1994 order of removal. Although Pinos was not initially considered a priority for removal, ICE reversed this stance in 2017 and told Pinos that he had to leave the country. 

“They told me that I had to buy a one-way plane ticket; they put me on a GPS device. November the second,” Pinos said. He was given until Nov. 30, 2017, to leave the country. That was the day Pinos went into sanctuary at First and Summerfield Church. 

“At first, I had decided that I was going to leave my family here and go back to the country. But then, talking to the community and family members, even back home, they were like, ‘What are you going to do here?’ Your family is there.”

Pinos has been in sanctuary since. His wife and children come to the church to eat dinner as a family, but Pinos is alone for most of the day. He spends his time cooking in the basement of the church and tending to plants in a small outside area within the church parameters. Just steps away, on the other side of the garden, is a gate that he chooses not to cross. 

Isabel Bysiewicz

Williams, who has filed many appeals on Pinos’ behalf, told the News that the order is the “sticking point” for Pinos’ current legal case. As long as the order hangs over Pinos’ head, if he steps outside of the gate, “ICE is probably going to have to enforce that order,” said Williams. 

Pinos has been in sanctuary at First and Summerfield Church for nearly 900 days. 

Zaporah Price | zaporah.price@yale.edu