A group of 132 clergy members from the Virginia area delivered a letter to the state’s two Democratic senators Tuesday, urging them to take steps to protect an asylum-seeking mother of three U.S. citizen children, who took sanctuary in a Maryland church last year.
Forty-year-old Rosa Gutierrez Lopez has been living at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda since December. She was forced into sanctuary after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, emboldened by the harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration, began arresting and detaining scores of non-criminal undocumented immigrants.
After years of following the law, raising a family in Virginia, and regular check-ins with ICE, agents began hounding her in 2017, urging her and her three U.S.-born children to self-deport to El Salvador, the country she fled in 2005 after facing threats from machete-wielding men who had killed members of her family.
Members of the DMV Sanctuary Congregations Network are now asking Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine (D) and Mark Warner (D), as well as a number of other federal lawmakers, to intervene and call the state’s ICE director to discuss Gutierrez Lopez’s case and help her legal team file a stay of removal.
“In a time when our current administration is separating thousands of children from their parents and jailing them as a deterrence to stop immigration, we need our senators…to reject the bait from a president who makes false claims about violence at the border and demonizes immigrants, regardless of status, at every opportunity,” the clergy members wrote in their letter Tuesday.
Both Warner and Kaine have since condemned the administration’s efforts to target the mother of three.
“Rosa’s case is another heartbreaking example of the Trump Administration targeting immigrant families who are contributing to their communities, instead of prioritizing the deportation of people who put public safety at risk,” Kaine said, in an email to ThinkProgress.
Kaine has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, calling its family separation practice “heartless” in a letter to state delegates last summer.
Warner said stories like that of Gutierrez Lopez had become “all too common” since President Donald Trump took office.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of stories are becoming all too common under the cruel policies of the current Administration,” he said in an email. “We need to redouble our efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform and, until the Administration is willing to engage in good faith on those negotiations, I would hope that they stop viewing people like Ms. Gutierrez Lopez or DACA recipients as pawns in their game.”
It’s unclear whether Kaine and Warner have reached out to the state’s ICE director to discuss Gutierrez Lopez’s case.
Living in sanctuary is difficult for anyone, but is especially challenging for undocumented immigrants who have gone public with their decision. Sanctuary rules are messy and rely on the threat of potential public relations scandal to keep federal agencies from violating that thin layer of protection.
Currently, authorities are barred from conducting armed raids in places of worship where clergy and parishioners are sheltering someone. Some ICE agents have found ways to exploit legal loopholes, however, posting up outside churches, hoping to catch their intended target running errands or, as in one recent North Carolina case, on their way to a routine immigration check-in.
Despite the risks, Gutierrez Lopez chose to seek sanctuary rather than uproot her family to El Salvador, leaving her children in the care of loved ones in Fredricksburg, Maryland as she continues to fight her case. She is removed from the day-to-day lives of her children, but still sees them frequently.
“It’s not a secret that she’s here,” Rev. Katie Romano Griffin, a minister at Cedar Lane, told ThinkProgress. “Sanctuary is not an easy thing to do. We have this amazing working mom who has been paying taxes and supporting her three U.S.-born children, one of whom has special needs, and in order to be able to stay together with them has had to live apart from them and be completely removed from [their] life. That’s what sanctuary does: Being removed from your life and having your basic needs met while due process takes its course.”
With a backlog of over 800,000 immigration court cases, Gutierrez Lopez’s case could take months or even years, which is why ICE urged her to self-deport in the first place. Despite being a working mother with a special needs child and a dozen years of living crime-free in the United States, the Justice Department largely considers her a hassle to employees trying to work their way through the nearly one million other cases.
“Despite our many pleas, [the court has] said ‘we’ll get to it when we get to it’ — [that] is essentially the response they’ve given me,” Hector Perez-Casillas, Gutierrez Lopez’s attorney told ThinkProgress in December.
Gutierrez Lopez is one of the many individuals currently being targeted by the Trump administration as it attempts to crack down on immigration more broadly. In addition to those who’ve taken sanctuary, the administration has targeted asylum-seekers, green card holders, undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children — also known as DREAMers — and those with Temporary Protected Status, who fled their home countries due to war or natural disaster.
The president has more recently attempted to stymie efforts by Central American immigrants to gain asylum in the United States, pushing for a policy change that requires immigrants to wait out their cases in Mexico, where they are often targeted by violent gangs, rather than within the United States.