Guatemalan woman facing deportation receives sanctuary at North Carolina Episcopal church

By David Paulsen
Posted May 31, 2017
Juana Luz Tobar Ortega and family

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, center front, poses with her family for a photo released by American Friends Service Committee, which is helping her resist a deportation order.

[Episcopal News Service] An Episcopal church in North Carolina is sheltering a Guatemalan woman as she defies federal orders to leave the country after failing to receive a stay of her deportation.

The Guatemalan woman, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, first came to the United States in the mid-1990s to escape violence in her home country, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina said in a news release.

In April, she was told by federal immigration authorities that she had until May 31 to return to Guatemala, potentially leaving behind her husband, who is an American citizen, and her four children, as well as her job of eight years as sewing machine operator, the diocese said.

Working with a Quaker group called the American Friends Service Committee, St. Barnabas in Greensboro agreed to serve as a sanctuary church and take in Tobar Ortega while she fights deportation. She appeared with her family at a news conference held at the church on May 31, as seen in a video that was streamed live on Facebook.

“I want to thank the members of this church and the pastors for their support and their help,” Tobar Ortega said in Spanish. “I hope to not spend much time here. I hope to return to my home soon, to hug my children and grandchildren and to be with my family.”

The congregation had spent more than a year in a process of discernment before choosing to become a sanctuary church.

“There’s absolutely no reason for this woman to be torn away from her family and her community,” the Rev. Randall Keeney, rector at St. Barnabas, said in a news release from American Friends Service Committee. “She’s a child of God and we will give her shelter until ICE drops her deportation order.”

The modern sanctuary church movement dates to the 1980s, when some churches began opening their doors to immigrants fleeing wars in Central and South America. It has returned to the national spotlight and picked up steam this year in response to the immigration policies of the Trump administration. Some immigrant communities are on edge amid reports of deportation raids in various cities, with critics accusing the new administration of increasingly targeting immigrants who pose little or no threat to public safety.

Numerous Episcopal congregations across the country have been researching whether to offer sanctuary for such immigrants, and some, like St. Barnabas, have committed to provide that haven if needed.

The news release from the Diocese of North Carolina says the vestry at St. Barnabas voted unanimously to take in Tobar Ortega after the congregation completed its process of discernment on the sanctuary issue.

“Our prayers and our companionship with the immigrant community led us to this place,” Keeney said in the diocese’s news release. “Our simple hope is to support Juana and her family as they so bravely cling to the dignity given to them by God.”

The congregation has the backing of the diocese, the Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, bishop diocesan pro tempore for the Diocese of North Carolina, said in the news release.

“The Diocese of North Carolina is eager and ready to assist our worship communities as they navigate the call to offer sanctuary to persons subject to the harsh realities of a broken immigration system,” Hodges-Copple said. “I have full confidence that each congregation has the capacity to be guided by prayer, research, theology and practicality to make their own decisions about how best to use its resources, including its buildings to the glory of God and in love and service of neighbors in need.”

More than 1,900 people have signed an online petition against Tobar Ortega’s deportation order. Her supporters rallied May 31 outside the High Point office of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, asking him to intervene on her behalf.

When Tobar Ortega first arrived in the United States, her initial request for asylum was denied, but she received a work permit and was allowed to stay for six years while she appealed the decision on asylum, the diocese said. She went back to Guatemala in 1999 to care for her ailing oldest daughter, and when she returned to the United States, her work permit was revoked. She remained in the United States, and in recent years, she had been checking in with federal authorities regularly while she sought a stay of removal, according to the diocese.

That changed last month, when she was told by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to prepare for voluntary deportation.

“We’re only asking them to continue to grant her a stay of removal, as ICE has done for the past six years,” Lesvi Molina, Tobar Ortega’s eldest daughter, said in American Friends Service Committee’s news release. “My mom has spent about $17,000 over the last 23 years trying to adjust her status. We would like there to be a path for her to get permanent residency, but ICE just seems to want to punish, not to work with us.”

In addition to her husband, two of her children are U.S. citizens, according to American Friends Service Committee. She has two additional children who have been allowed to remain in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a policy that gives preferred consideration to immigrants who arrived in the country as children and who meet certain conditions.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at


Comments (10)

  1. Rev. Jacqueline Steubbel says:

    As a Sewanee graduate, I am glad to see my faith tradition take a stand on this issue but what is puzzling to me is why this woman would not be granted asylum due to violence in her home country of Guatemala. I have worked as a chaplain for an ICE/Homeland Security complex in Texas and personally saw many ‘illegals’ — that is not a comfortable word for me — who fled violence in their home countries, were vetted and then granted the path to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship. Why now, has ICE decided to ‘punish’ this woman who has lived peacefully here for many years! May God walk with all of you on this journey of faith!

    1. Catholic Worker says:

      This is happening all over the U.S. – the deportations I mean. It began in earnest on the Monday after the Friday Inauguration! Please educate everyone you know about what ICE is doing everywhere! Most of those who have been targeted are NOT criminals! Get the word out! Get involved! Pray!

      1. Sonia Katchian says:

        Agreed. “the Monday after the Friday Inaguration” Bingo!!

  2. Richard Basta says:

    Difficult situation indeed. One the one hand, when you overstay your work visa you always run the risk of putting your future spouse and or loved ones at risk of immediate separation due to your own actions, however well meaning. On the other hand the person made a good faith effort to obtain legal status, at least from what this story says. The fact that she was allowed many stays of deportation over two decades and that her case wasnt processed quickly is a symptom of a broken immigration system indeed. What a mess! I don’t blame the ICE agents. They are just enforcing laws that were not enforced by previous administrations of both poitical parties. Hopefully her case is resolved quickly and humanely.

  3. Fabio A Sotelo says:

    I do celebrate the courage of St. Barnabas for opening the doors to Juana. Faith truly matters.

    1. “the Monday after the Friday Inauguration” Bingo!! Mrs. Ortega had been given a “stay of removal” as ICE’s systematically lenient interpretation of tough restrictions meant only for the worst of the worst. On January 20, 2017 the EO’s went down to ICE — apparently with no consideration for who the immigrant was, or what s/he had or hadn’t done with respect to the law. Boom. A grandmother becomes a statistic.
      And some of you “think” there are no moral or theological justifications?
      I suppose you would have felt that the extermination of the Jews was justified because of “the laws.”

  4. Kelly Kelley says:

    I salute St Barnabas as well! I am co director of our Episcopal church immigration and sanctuary team and we have just started our discernment process on what it would mean for us to be a sanctuary church. We are unique in our diocese, actually in our state, for having an active Latino ministry where we offer a service in Spanish. Thank you for sharing Juana’s story and we will be praying for her and her family!

  5. mike geibel says:

    Some of the facts are missing from the ENS story, which make it sound like Ms. Ortega has suddenly been targeted by the new administration. Other news reports indicate that Ms. Ortega’s application for asylum was denied in 1998 and was denied again in later appeal. We must assume there was good cause to deny the asylum request. In 2001, she was granted “voluntary departure,” which required her to leave the country but would have allowed her to return on visits and to apply for citizenship formally. Instead, she defied the ruling and never left. Almost 20 years have passed since 1998, surely enough time to hire attorneys and process a citizenship application. Her husband is a citizen. Ms. Ortega only started checking in with immigration officials once a year starting in 2011 but only after ICE agents showed up at her job. The ICE office in Charlotte reacted to the fact she essentially was defying its rulings, and ordered her to self-deport by May 31.

    There are thousands of people whose deportations were not enforced under previous Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. Staying within the borders of the U.S. after expiration of a VISA or other documented permission, is not a felony or even a misdemeanor, but is a civil infraction that subjects the person to a fine and deportation. A civil infraction is not “jail time.” However, defying the order to self-deport can subject her to forceful deportation and a ban from re-entry for a period of 10 years.

    As to the Church and other self-declared “sanctuaries,” 8 United States Code § 1324 makes it a felony punishable by 5 years in prison to “(iii) knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that an alien has come to, entered, or remains in the United States in violation of law, conceals, harbors, or shields from detection, or attempts to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection, such alien in any place, including any building or any means of transportation. . .” The Trump EO respects the boundaries of church sanctuaries, but “harboring” an illegal alien is a felony. ICE avoids arrests at “sensitive locations” such as churches but an undocumented immigrant can be arrested regardless of whether they are at a church, synagogue or mosque. ICE has said its deference policy is meant to ensure that people can participate in activities and seek services at places such as churches without hesitation. The policy doesn’t say anything about allowing people to stay in such locations full time as a shield against arrest.

    Certainly there are illegal aliens, perhaps even Ms. Ortega, who are exactly the type of hardworking, dedicated family people who we want to welcome into the U.S. We are, however, a nation of laws and legal procedures—it’s called due process. Acts of defiance won’t help her case, but if the ENS depiction of her character is accurate, I believe that an immigration judge will reach a just decision.

    The following link indicates the claims of ICE officers splitting families and midnight raids to arrest non-citizens whose only crime is illegal entry, appears to be exaggerated:

    The link can be found on the website of the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese. The “facts” as reported: “About 90 percent of the immigrants apprehended by ICE in the Los Angeles area have committed crimes, according to agency data that goes through April 29,” that included murder, burglary, domestic violence and repeated re-entry after previous deportation.

    1. Bill Louis says:

      Thank you for laying out the facts of this case. As usual the mainstream media ignores, obscures or twists the facts that do not fit their narrative. I am an Episcopalian and I love my small suburban church and church family. What I do not like is how the Episcopal leadership, especially the Diocese of the USA sees fit to ignore the laws of our land such as those you mention above. I do not like how the Episcopal leadership sees fit to support every leftist agenda the comes down the road and twist or use scripture to justify their actions. Then there are the supporters and haters that will push back on those of us that do not go along with their views. Thank you Mike for speaking out to expose what is really going on here.

  6. Pjcabbiness says:

    There is no moral or theological justification to support the interference with her lawful, appropriate and long overdue deportation.

Comments are closed.