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Hounded by Trump administration, Virginia mother of 3 takes sanctuary in a church

Rosa Gutierrez Lopez, whose youngest has Down Syndrome, is the first person to go public about seeking a church's protection from ICE agents.

Clergy and congregants welcome Rosa Gutierrez Lopez, center, to sanctuary at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Maryland after federal immigration officials tried to force her back to El Salvador. Gutierrez Lopez has no criminal record, and the youngest of her three U.S.-born children has Down Syndrome. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress
Clergy and congregants welcome Rosa Gutierrez Lopez, center, to sanctuary at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Maryland after federal immigration officials tried to force her back to El Salvador. Gutierrez Lopez has no criminal record, and the youngest of her three U.S.-born children has Down Syndrome. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress

SOUTH KENSINGTON, MARYLAND — A 40-year-old mother of three forced to seek sanctuary in a Maryland church was formally received there Wednesday with song, prayer, and a mix of sorrow and defiance.

Rosa Gutierrez Lopez has lived in the United States for 13 years. All three of her children, including a six-year-old with Down Syndrome, were born here. None has ever set foot in Rosa’s native El Salvador, which she fled in 2005 after being repeatedly threatened by machete-wielding men who her lawyer said have attacked her family members in the years since.

Gutierrez Lopez was due to board a plane back to El Salvador on Monday, after the federal immigration authorities who had granted her a work permit in 2014 and required the restaurant worker to check in annually reversed course shortly after President Donald Trump took office. Suddenly, she had to come in twice a month and wear an ankle monitor at all times. Earlier this fall, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began encouraging her to self-deport, and warning her that if she didn’t do it herself they’d come for her themselves soon enough.

“They put pressure on me to purchase a ticket to go back home,” Gutierrez Lopez told congregants and reporters gathered at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church. “But I did not want to leave my children here alone…If I go back to El Salvador, there are no specialists in El Salvador who can care for my littlest one, they don’t have the kinds of specialists he needs there. I want to fight my case from here, and I will be here in sanctuary until the time comes that a judge reviews and reopens my case.”

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The case entire case appears to stem from a misunderstanding more than a decade prior over an initial court date following Gutierrez Lopez’s entry into the U.S. Her legal team has filed multiple motions with the heavily backlogged immigration court in Harlingen, Texas, attorney Hector Perez-Casillas explained to ThinkProgress after the sanctuary vigil, but the court has refused to even respond to them. Without a judge’s willingness to at least look at the paperwork — and to decide whether ICE’s sudden, seemingly arbitrary switch in 2017 from granting a series of stays of deportation to demanding that Gutierrez Lopez abandon her U.S. citizen children in Fredericksburg — her case is in limbo.

“We’ve been in contact with the court so many times asking them to at least adjudicate the stay,” Perez-Casillas said, explaining that he eventually had to play a strange game of telephone with a half-dozen other legal officials in the Texas border town just to get the judge’s assistant to email him back with a vague refusal to act on the motions.

Gutierrez Lopez missed one early court appearance in 2006, after ICE ordered her to bring her asylum claims before a judge close to the Texas-Mexico border. She’d moved to the East Coast, and communication between the government and the fleeing woman broke down. She didn’t realize what had happened until most of a decade later, her lawyer said, when she got word ICE was looking for her and voluntarily went into an office in Virginia where she’d then lived for years.

That was in 2014. For a few years, agents were understanding. She had no criminal record, a job, and three children — one who requires intensive specialized medical and occupational therapies. But in 2017, she said, that all changed. Like many other undocumented but law-abiding immigrants with long track records of compliance with ICE dictates, Gutierrez Lopez was suddenly put on a much tighter check-in schedule — and fitted with an electronic monitoring device despite her years of steady attendance at meetings with the agency.

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Her decision to take refuge with the church community sets up a kind of staring contest, between the clergy and faithful who have taken her in as part of their religious practice and a federal system not generally inclined to give much of a hoot for such things. It’s anyone’s guess how that showdown might ultimately be resolved — but it should at very least improve the odds that the immigration court will stop ducking her lawyer’s entreaties.

“Despite our many pleas, [the court has] said we’ll get to it when we get to it, is essentially the response they’ve given me,” Perez-Casillas said.

It’s not hard to guess what the court was hoping for. ICE has Gutierrez Lopez down as having bought a plane ticket to leave the country on December 10. If she had self-deported, that’s one more case off that judge’s backlogged docket — and no need to worry about nettlesome motions to relocate the case to a court closer to where her family has lived for a decade, or to reopen a case decided years ago on a technicality. Immigration judges are under immense pressure to move faster, facing computer-driven quotas that would require them to decide complex paperwork-heavy cases in a matter of minutes. Gutierrez Lopez may be a mom with a special needs kid and a dozen years of clean living in the U.S. under her belt, but she’s also — for the judges under the gun from their bosses at the Department of Justice — a hassle.

By deciding to take sanctuary and force the system to reckon with her case fully, Rosa called the bluff implicit in the immigration judge’s waiting game. But the tactic has a strained, complicated history in modern times.

For several years, churches around the country have provided sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation orders that congregants believe are unjust. It is a legally complicated tactic, reliant as much on the political hellfire that would likely come down on any federal agency that made an armed raid on a holy site where clergy and parishioners are sheltering a human being as they believe their faith requires them to do. ICE bosses have occasionally sent officers into churches, but more often resort to posting up outside and hoping to catch a sanctuary-taker on a grocery run — or even on their way to meet with other immigration officials, as in one recent North Carolina case.

Sanctuary is often done quietly, but Gutierrez Lopez and her supporters wanted this to be a loud day. Cedar Lane UUC and Gutierrez Lopez alike enjoy the support and solidarity of the local Montgomery County government, who sent the county executive’s Interfaith Community Liaison to speak to the congregants and extend a warm welcome. Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, the liaison official, told the group everyone from the county council to the chief of police was joining in every round of applause for Rosa and against the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

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When Gutierrez Lopez broke down describing her children’s confusion at what’s happening, and the hopeless situation her youngest son would face in a county he’s never known where the doctors he needs aren’t available, voices in the crowd called out messages of support in both English and Spanish. The two-hour service, punctuated repeatedly by religious songs and prayers drawn from a half-dozen different religious traditions whose roots span the globe, had a celebratory air more often than a solemn one.

That spirit of joy and celebration was intentional, Rev. Alvin Herring of the national Faith in Action network told ThinkProgress after the service.

“When congregations make the decision, usually a very prayerful decision, to provide sanctuary for our dear siblings who are seeking only a better life… not only are they providing sanctuary and refuge to this dear sister, but they’re ministering to her. Giving her the benefit of friends, of faithful partners to gather around her during her residence here,” Herring said. “So whenever a congregation makes that decision it is cause for celebration, and it moves our entire network of 3,000 congregations to lean in and to give support and to share in both the wonderful opportunity but also the considerable challenge.”

Herring pointed to the county official’s warm remarks on behalf of the Montgomery County government — including its police — as evidence that the taking of sanctuary need not be seen only as a standoff between the religious and security institutions of a society. But with the country riven by stark and discordant politics under the current federal regime, he said, no one in the sanctuary community is blind to the need for some direct challenge to hateful narratives about families like Gutierrez Lopez’s.

“Understand that when a congregation or a network such as ours really does all that it can, with a great deal of vigor and intention, to provide sanctuary, that we are causing a confrontation. We intend to cause a moral confrontation,” Herring said. “Because we not only believe that the god of all our faiths sides with us, but we have every reason to believe that most people in this country would open their hearts to a woman who simply wants to continue to live here after 13 years [and] side with a mother who is caring for a special needs child and give them the best chance to live and to thrive.”