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Immigrant grandmother becomes first in North Carolina to take sanctuary

“Our hopes in doing this is that we would be able to change the hearts and minds of people with influence in our country.”

Juana Ortega, a grandmother who’s taking sanctuary CREDIT: AFSC /Betsy Blake
Juana Ortega, a grandmother who’s taking sanctuary CREDIT: AFSC /Betsy Blake

On Wednesday, an immigrant grandmother began indefinitely living inside a church in North Carolina after she was given final orders of deportation by the U.S. federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency last month.

Juana Ortega, who escaped violence in Guatemala 24 years ago, applied for asylum status and had a work permit when she first came to the country. But when she had to go back to Guatemala to take care of a very ill daughter, Ortega left immediately without waiting weeks to get her permission to leave approved. As a result, her asylum application was rejected when she returned to the United States.

For the past six years, Ortega has had to check in with ICE and each time received a stay of removal, or a temporary postponement that delays her deportation. But when Ortega went to check in with ICE in April, she was given a final deportation order and told that she would be deported at the end of May.

Instead of getting on a plane to Guatemala, Ortega formally took shelter at the St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina on Wednesday. On the same day, her family and supporters will travel to Sen. Thom Tillis’ (R-NC) office to personally ask him to help influence the outcome of her stay of removal.

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“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, Juana’s eldest daughter, said in a press 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.”

Ortega — who has a U.S. citizen husband, two U.S. citizen children, two undocumented children granted deportation relief, and two nine-year-old grandchildren — has been an upstanding community member active in her son’s high school and local church, according to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC-Carolinas Office), a Quaker organization supporting the family. Ortega is the first person in recent years to be offered sanctuary in North Carolina.

“Our hopes in doing this is that we would be able to change the hearts and minds of people with influence in our country — particularly with Thom Tillis, with all senators and representatives, so that they can represent all of their people,” Rev. Randall Keeney, vicar of St. Barnabas, said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Juana is one of their people. Her family are their people. Their interests, their joys, and their ability to be a family matters.”

Ortega herself fears that deportation would mean drastic changes for her children. The day before she took sanctuary, Ortega told ThinkProgress through a translator that her 15-year-old son has slumped into a depression and that “he doesn’t want to go outside.”

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It’s not clear why Ortega’s stay of removal was denied in April. But it follows President Donald Trump’s promise to deport the country’s undocumented immigrant population. He previously claimed that some could be rapists, drug dealers, and criminals. Since he took office, the president signed executive orders to eliminate restrictions to deportable offenses; requested more money in the 2018 federal budget for detention space; and is on pace to hire more federal immigration agents.

“I’ve never done any of those things — I’ve never sold drugs, I’ve never robbed anyone, I’ve never walked the streets, I’ve never lived off the government,” Ortega said. “I’ve worked the whole time. I do not consider myself a criminal. I feel good about being an American.”

“I understand why they would want to deport people who have done bad things, but some people like me who haven’t done anything wrong, it doesn’t seem like it’s fair,” Ortega added.

Ortega hopes that taking shelter would give the government more time to look over her case and perhaps give her another chance to stay in the country. Since 2011, the ICE agency has adhered to a “sensitive locations FAQ” memo that advises field officers to abstain from detaining and arresting immigrants in sensitive locations, including houses of worship, schools, and hospitals so as not to disturb the daily activities of those places.

ICE agents have not breached houses of worship where immigrants have taken sanctuary in other churches. But they have in the past arrested people leaving a church-run hypothermia shelter, and lured an immigrant out of church using deceptive tactics.

In recent days, other immigrants have taken sanctuary in houses of worship in states like Colorado and New Mexico. In Denver, a mother of four who stayed in sanctuary for 86 days was recently granted a temporary stay of removal.

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“We’re acting as gatekeepers to protect them so that no enforcement agencies like ICE officials or sheriffs departments that have signed on to enforce immigration law will come here,” Keeney said. “I’ll spend a lot of time in the rocking chair outside.”

Update: The article has been corrected to reflect that Ortega did not have asylum status, but that she had a work permit while waiting to hear about her application.