Francisca Lino looked out her bedroom window at about 11:10 p.m. Friday. The street looked like it always did at that time of night, a few vehicles parked on a well-lit street in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community.
Then her eyes locked on something.
“Una van blanca,” she said.
A windowless white van with red flashers caught her attention.
“Could it be ICE?” she feared.
Lino is undocumented and the mother of four US citizens. And for nearly two years now, she has been living on the second floor of Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago’s west side.
In 2017, she decided to take sanctuary after immigration officials told her to pack her bags and show up at a downtown federal building with a one-way ticket out of the country. Instead of following orders from immigration agents, she followed her heart and sought shelter at a church, a place ICE normally doesn’t raid.
But with immigration raids announced for this weekend in cities around the country, including Chicago, Lino was especially on edge.
“Me da panico,” she said.
Lino says she gets anxiety attacks at night sometimes from just thinking and thinking about how little control she has over her life. There is nothing normal about living locked inside a church, she says.
To escape her reality she stands by her window for hours people watching. She reminisces walking down the sidewalk. She thinks about what it was like to work and shop on her own.
“I feel such deep nostalgia,” she said. “I even cry wondering if I will walk the streets again.”
Lino says she yearns for the moment when she can rush beyond the doors to help her daughters solve a problem when they call needing their mother.
“That’s what hurts me the most,” Lino said.
Away from her husband and children
Lino says she decided to take refuge in a church to maintain the tight-knit bonds with her family. And early on, living in sanctuary felt like the optimal solution. Her daughters stayed the night and her husband and friends visited often.
But the past two years have been tough.
She missed seeing her daughter walk the stage after earning a Master’s degree in social work. She missed her daughter’s marriage and first birth. The visits from her family are shorter and materialize less often. Even the family text message group is not pinging her phone as much.
“It hurts,” Lino said. “It makes me sad.”
It makes her husband Diego Lino sad too. When he visited Saturday his eyes were blood shot. He says he picked up a second job to help make ends meet since his wife can’t work. He wakes up at 2:30 a.m. and works seven days a week. The drive to see his wife in the church is a two-hour round trip.
“It’s tough,” Diego Lino said. “But I have to move my family forward.”
From her bedroom window overlooking a barbershop and a mural that says “0 shots, 0 killed today in Chicago,” Lino mulls over her life-altering decision which in many ways equates to self-incarceration. And while doubts cross her mind she says she feels she has made the right choice.
“I feel it has been worth it,” Lino said. “At least I see my daughters on the weekends.”
A life inside the church
Inside Adalberto United Methodist Church Lino has found a new family. The pastor’s daughter, Janette Alonso calls her “sister” and treats her like one, too. Even Alonso’s three children call Lino “sister.” And this weekend her sanctuary family was there with Lino around the clock.
“It’s kind of stressful,” Alonso said. “I have to be looking out the window. Hopefully nothing happens.”
Throughout the weekend, Lino and Alonso kept an eye out for strange cars. When the children shut a door loudly behind her, Lino jumped started. Even a call from her husband from an unknown number spiked her anxiety. She thought twice about answering.
On tough days, like this weekend, Alonso goes grocery shopping and returns home with flowers for Lino.
“I feel like she is my real sister,” Lino said. “I feel their love.”
And while Lino is hoping ICE doesn’t usher her away this weekend, or ever, she is technically not in hiding. A newspaper article with her photo is posted on a bulletin board that can be seen through the first floor glass window of the church. The headline reads, “The impossible decision.”
After two years of living in sanctuary, the cold reality of her decision to evade ICE is coming into focus.
“I feel alone,” Lino told CNN.