Rosa Robles has defied a deportation order and remains in the United States – a tiny patch of it.


The maid is confined to a Presbyterian church in Tucson, Arizona, and does not leave for fear of banishment to Mexico. “If I step out of here anything can happen,” she said, seated in the windowless annex to the adobe clay church which serves as her living quarters.

Six months into a cloistered and at times claustrophobic existence, Robles, 41, now finds herself a figurehead of a small, burgeoning sanctuary movement.

At least seven other undocumented migrants facing deportation have found refuge at churches across the United States, opening a new front in the battle over immigration reform.

Latino anxiety over deportation was supposed to ebb in the wake of President Barack Obama’s executive action in November protecting about 4.7 million undocumented immigrants from removal. He instructed officials to focus on deporting criminals.

Related: Bodies at the border: ‘Many Mexicans have no option. This flow will not cease’

Robles, watching the president’s White House announcement from her refuge, gave two cheers. Her two sons, aged eight and 11, grew up in Tucscon but were born in Mexico and are not US citizens. Obama’s action protected them. But not Robles. “I had mixed emotions,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “My children benefited but not me.”

According to her lawyer, Margo Cowan, Robles, who has no criminal record, can still qualify under the expanded prosecutorial discretion outlined by Obama but should remain in the refuge until it is granted. Similar advice has been given to the others in refuges in Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The spirit of Obama’s order was clear but the message had not reached all local prosecutors, police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents, said Cowan. “There’s a huge gulf between the administration and what’s happening on the ground.”

The problem was not wilful disobedience so much as bureaucracies clanking on as if it were business as usual, said Cowan. “It’s hard for them when we are changing policy gears in such a dramatic way.”

Republican efforts in Congress to unpick Obama’s executive action – plus his earlier action on so-called “dreamers”, the US-raised children of such migrants – has further clouded the political climate.

The state of Arizona gives undocumented people special reason for wariness. It is home to Sheriff Joe Arpaio , who is notorious for racial profiling, and the stringent anti-illegal immigration law known as 1070.

Police use routine traffic stops of Latino people to summon immigration officials. There is an old, bitter joke among immigrants about being found guilty of driving while Mexican.

While on her way to work in September 2010, Robles drove on the wrong side of traffic cones in a construction zone. The police officer who pulled her over did not issue a ticket but called Ice agents, triggering deportation proceedings.

Related: Duped by Mexico’s mafia: Guatemalan couple fall victim to border gang

After four years of fruitless appeals she entered the church on 7 August to escape a final deportation order that took effect the following day.

“I am grateful to the church and all the people who have supported me but it’s very difficult. Every day I wake up and think today could be the day I leave,” she said.

Robles arrived in the US in 1999, married and raised sons who feel American. They play baseball and prefer speaking English to Spanish.

The church where she is sheltering sparked a sanctuary movement in the 1980s by taking in migrants fleeing wars and persecution in central America. Hundreds of congregations across the US followed suit, prompting tense face-offs between members of the clergy and federal officials.

The church revived the tactic last May when it accepted Daniel Noyoy Ruiz , a building maintenance supervisor. He left after winning a stay of deportation.

After three months in a different Tucson church, Francisco Perez, a landscape gardener, emerged on Christmas Eve, also free and safe, after local authorities lifted a deportation threat. Unlike Robles, Perez had US-born children.

The maid remained hopeful of winning a reprieve but as weeks have dragged into months she confessed to pangs of desolation. “I wonder sometimes if I can endure this.”

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