[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 firstname.lastname@example.org.