Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, 49, has been living in the cinder block room that used to be the nursery for St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro for two weeks.
She has a bed, a nightstand and a small TV. Her family visits her during the week, but eventually they leave. She’s grateful for her room and the volunteers taking turns to visit her, but she wants to go back to her home in Asheboro.
“Without even knowing me, they opened their doors to help me,” Ortega said. “This decision was difficult. I decided to stay here for my family.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Ortega is the first person facing deportation in North Carolina to obtain sanctuary in a church. A growing number of sanctuary churches nationwide are offering people a place to eat, sleep and wash, beyond the reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Since 2011, ICE has had a policy of refraining from entering sensitive locations such as churches, hospitals and schools to arrest, interview, search or carry out surveillance.
Individuals seek sanctuary as a last resort to avoid deportation and to buy time to obtain at least a stay of removal that temporarily delays deportation.
Ortega came to the U.S. from Guatemala almost 25 years ago to flee guerrillas she says were threatening her. While she was seeking asylum in 1999, Ortega left the U.S. without authorization from the government to care for a daughter in Guatemala who had a life-threatening illness. She returned to the U.S. with a false visa two months later. In 2011, ICE detained her at her job at Sanger Enterprises, a furniture textile company. Since then, every year, ICE has postponed her deportation order, until this year.
During her routine visit with ICE in April she received an ankle bracelet and a deportation order to leave the U.S. by May 31. Leaving the country would have meant saying goodbye to her family – her husband, four children and two grandchildren.
“It’s not easy when all of the sudden you’re told to leave your country, your kids,” Ortega said. “I’ve lived here for so many years. And I’ve contributed to the country. I’ve worked this whole time. Never, never have I stopped working.”
This wasn’t the first time Ortega has been asked to leave the U.S. In 1998, an immigration judge gave Ortega the opportunity to voluntarily leave the U.S., said Bryan Cox, spokesperson for ICE.
“The Board of Immigration Appeals subsequently dismissed her appeal in 2001 and granted her voluntary departure from the United States by July 2001,” Cox said. “However, Ms. Tobar failed to leave the country and is now subject to a final order of removal. Ms. Tobar has received all appropriate process before the federal immigration courts and is subject to removal from the United States in accordance with federal law and judicial order.”
Being at the church won’t change her legal status, Cox said, but he noted that ICE’s sensitive locations policy is still in effect, meaning ICE agents won’t enter St. Barnabas.
Rev. Randall Keeney, vicar at St. Barnabas, and his congregation are giving Ortega sanctuary until she can get a stay of removal. Ortega did not attend church at St. Barnabas nor did she know anyone from the congregation. The American Friends Service Committee in Greensboro, a social justice Quaker organization, asked Keeney if Ortega could stay at the church.
“No one voiced opposition, and when I asked if we should, by voice everyone said ‘yes,’” Keeney said.
‘We stand behind this family’
Two years before Ortega arrived, the American Friends Service Committee asked Keeney to give sanctuary to a man from El Salvador. That didn’t work out, but Keeney continued conversations with the organization to host someone in the future.
Providing sanctuary is one of the boldest actions a church can take to advocate for immigration reform, said David Fraccaro, executive director of FaithAction International House in Greensboro.
“Sanctuary is not only providing safety and care for a family, it’s also publicly saying ‘we stand behind this family as a congregation and as a community,’” Fracarro said. “That can be an important strategy to come out of relief. It puts a face to the story. They are the rare cases.”
They are the rare cases people get to learn about. Many others live in the shadows hoping not to get noticed by ICE.
“The fear in the immigrant community is so thick,” Keeney said. “Parents who may be undocumented are afraid to go to work, they’re afraid to leave the house. The only thing that’s going to repair that is some serious, comprehensive, compassionate, merciful immigration reform. Immigrants have been scapegoated long enough. Something has to change.”
On Friday morning, two brothers who came to the U.S. from Mexico were going to go into sanctuary at the School for Conversion in Durham, an interfaith organization that teaches how to live in community. Later Friday morning, the brothers were notified a judge granted them a hearing for a stay of removal, and neither went to the school.
On Thursday, Rev. William Barber, president of the NAACP and pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, announced at a rally in Raleigh that he will offer his church as a sanctuary to José Chicas, who is facing deportation to El Salvador on June 28.
Over the last year, Rev. Julie Peeples’ Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro has been preparing the church with a room and a shower to host someone in sanctuary when needed.
“This is in line with the gospel. It’s in line with how sanctuary has been offered by people of all faith for centuries,” Peeples said. “It’s what we feel called to do right now. It’s the best way to love our neighbor.”
A growing number of churches in North Carolina are learning about sanctuary, and dozens are supporting the movement by providing food, shelter and health care, Fracarro said.
There have been 25 public cases of people in sanctuary in the country since 2014. Sixteen cases have received delays in deportation and eight are still in limbo. In one case, the person was unexpectedly deported.
The rise of the sanctuary movement in North Carolina coincides with an increase in deportations nationwide. There was an overall 40 percent increase in ICE arrests during President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, compared to the same time period in 2016.
In January, President Trump signed an executive order to prioritize the deportation of all who entered the country illegally, not just those with criminal convictions. U.S. Secretary John Kelly signed a memorandum in February to implement the order.
“As Secretary Kelly has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt entire classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” Cox said in a statement. “All those in violation of immigration law may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
Ortega’s family and supporters have been urging U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis to ask ICE to grant a stay of removal, which will temporarily delay deportation, and to continue to help her find a path toward permanent residency. Ortega’s supporters have been calling Sen. Tillis’ office every Thursday to ask him to take her case.
Ortega has not stepped outside the church since she began living there. She’s afraid. Seeking sanctuary was her last attempt to remain close to her family, she said.
Jackeline Tobar, 22, her youngest daughter, said the house feels empty without her mom.
“It doesn’t feel alive,” Tobar said. “When she comes home, she’ll tell us what to do. She’s the one that gets the family together.”
Camila Molina: 919-829-4638