St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro has publicly offered sanctuary to a grandmother facing deportation.
Juana Luz Tobar Ortega of High Point is a mother of four, two of whom are citizens and two of whom are DACA recipients, and a grandmother of two. She fled violence in Guatemala and moved to Asheboro in 1993. Her husband is a U.S. citizen. She has been here for more than two decades, but our current immigration system provides no pathway for her to become a citizen. She is not a criminal, having checked-in regularly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officials since 2011. ICE continually renewed her stay of removal until her first check-in under the Trump administration, at which point her stay was not renewed, and she was ordered to leave the country or be deported.
St. Barnabas is among the growing number of congregations pledging to offer sanctuary. In my role on the North Carolina Council of Churches, I have seen hundreds of people of faith engaged in learning more about sanctuary, and I hope that the example of St. Barnabas will lead other churches to open their doors to people who are integral parts of their communities and families and who are at risk for deportation. Currently more than 2,100 people have signed a petition calling on ICE to allow Ortega to stay in the United States, and many other people of faith have pledged support to St. Barnabas in its efforts.
No local policy can prevent ICE agents from conducting raids, making arrests and deporting undocumented immigrants. Under the Obama administration, ICE was directed not to enter certain “sensitive locations – namely schools, churches and health centers. Just as the Trump administration has promised to repeal many Obama-era policies, this memo could also be rescinded at any time. Meanwhile, the sanctuary movement remains very powerful. Notably, it serves as a public witness, a function that has significant moral and political ramifications.
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When a religious congregation offers sanctuary, it provides temporary housing with the hope that the person being sheltered can receive asylum or a stay of removal. However, it also does more than that, as it strengthens the moral and political muscle of resistance.
Sanctuary is one route to changing hearts and minds. When members of a community of faith offer sanctuary, they meet an undocumented immigrant and hear the person’s story. In my work, I have seen that this type of relationship-building is the best route to creating larger change while also strengthening our community.
Greensboro and the work of FaithAction International House, the American Friends Service Committee and other immigrant-rights groups have demonstrated how local community groups can partner with local law enforcement and government to make communities safer and more welcoming through alliances and commitments. As the community comes together, it stands in opposition to our broken immigration system and divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.
Sanctuary is not merely a response to raids and detentions or a strategy to fight for individual cases. It is a vision for what our communities can be and a measure of our capacity to love. God’s love knows no walls or borders. It calls us to take prophetic actions demonstrating radical hospitality, rooted in ancient traditions of our faith communities. I applaud St. Barnabas and the many groups working together in Greensboro for demonstrating a loving response to Juana and taking prophetic actions to demonstrate radical hospitality.
Jennie Belle is the director of the Immigration and Farmworkers Program of the North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh.