While Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, an undocumented woman taking sanctuary in Greensboro, seeks protection from deportation, Sen. Thom Tillis is preoccupied with giving the US Border Patrol more personnel and equipment.
About 40 North Carolinians held a Fourth of July cookout in front of US Sen. Thom Tillis’ High Point office, but the guest of honor was a no-show.
A card table covered in a red-checked cloth bequeathed a pie decorated with two small American flags. Hotdogs cooked on an industrial-strength grill. And a small sound system pumped out a mix ranging from Latin dance music to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
After fielding questions from a trio of television reporters, Lesvi Molina, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega’s daughter, pulled out her cell phone and dialed the number for Sen. Tillis’ Washington DC office.
“We gave you an invitation a week ago for a cookout we’re holding at your office,” Molina said. “We’re sorry that we missed you. It’s so unfortunate that you didn’t come. We did hope to see you here, and you didn’t come, but we’re here outside the High Point office. We hope to hear from you soon, and hopefully you do take the time to meet up with our family.”
Tobar Ortega came to the United States from Guatemala in 1992 after armed anti-government rebels threatened her life, Molina has said. Later, after visiting Guatemala to care for Molina — who was ill and staying with her grandparents — Tobar Ortega obtained a fraudulent visa to return to the United States. She raised four children in Asheboro and worked at a contract sewing factory in High Point. In 2011, Tobar Ortega was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but ultimately spared deportation because she fell outside the Obama administration’s priority for removing criminal immigrants. That changed this year, when ICE ordered her to leave the country at the end of May. Instead, she took sanctuary in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in northwest Greensboro.
Lesvi Molina has said that her mother’s two youngest children, including a 15-year-old who is still in high school, need her here in North Carolina.
Since Tobar Ortega went into sanctuary on May 28, her daughter said Tillis has yet to meet with them or respond.
“We’re basically saying, ‘We’re here, we’re not going to go anywhere, we want to meet with you and just answer our questions,’” Molina told supporters in front of Tillis’ office on July 4. “‘Do you think our mother should be deported? Do we deserve this? Does her family deserve to be separated?’ That’s why we are here today, and that’s why we brought the cookout here to his office. Because we have not had any concrete answers from his staff.”
Ginny Hultquist, a volunteer with the nonprofit Faith Action, said Tobar Ortega’s supporters are targeting Tillis — the junior senator from North Carolina — as opposed to Sen. Richard Burr or Rep. Mark Walker because of Tillis’ membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“He is the only person who can go to ICE and request a stay of removal,” Hultquist said. “Who are we in this country if we can’t show mercy?”
Molina said the lack of action on her mother’s case has caused frustration.
“We are very concerned about what’s going to happen next,” she said. “Time is going by and we’re not getting anywhere. We have to be patient.”
Sen. Tillis’ office provided the following statement to Triad City Beat: “While in this particular instance our office worked to do everything we could have done within the confines of our legal system, the case is now out of our jurisdiction.” Tillis’ office didn’t respond to a query about whether the senator has asked ICE to grant a stay of removal.
A Republican, Tillis has attempted to position himself as a moderate on immigration, but has insisted that border enforcement and strengthening interior enforcement must take place before the needs of the undocumented population in the United States can be addressed.
“I think we need to dispense with the ‘We don’t need borders, we need bridges’ discussion at one end of the spectrum, and the other end of the spectrum that says we need to build a structure that can be viewed from outer space,” Tillis said, addressing Carla Provost, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, during a June 21 hearing on the transnational criminal organization MS-13. “There is a happy medium that the experts on the ground there [at the border] have said through people, technology and infrastructure convinced you can be made more safe.”
“That type of support for our frontline men and women would help reduce the risk to them and their security, [and] help them do their jobs even better than they already do,” she said.
Yet Provost acknowledged during the hearing that as the United States has ramped up personnel and equipment over the past couple decades, illegal crossings are now “trending downward,” but the border has become increasingly violent, with “assaults against Border Patrol agents on the rise.”
“Certainly as we tighten down on border security our experience over the years as we do a better job, unfortunately the violence against our men and women rises as it becomes more difficult to cross the borders,” Provost told him.
Rather than de-militarizing the border, Tillis is proposing escalation of border enforcement.
“It would seem to me that to the extent that we put people, technology and infrastructure on the border, we’re not only addressing a national security problem, but we may also be addressing a humanitarian element in terms of limiting the amount of human smuggling that’s occurring that ultimately get into drug trafficking, prostitution and other things that occur that create the currency that MS-13 uses to run their organization,” Tillis said.
The senator didn’t address the poverty and political violence — some of it caused by US military intervention — that drives immigration by compelling people like Tobar Ortega to risk their lives crossing the border to seek refuge, or more recently to flee gang violence in Central America. Instead, Tillis focused on MS-13’s victimization of undocumented people.
“Here’s the sad part about what we’re talking about,” Tillis said. “If they’re guilty of murder or rape, hopefully [criminal immigrants will] be prosecuted and incarcerated. If they’re guilty of crimes that are just below a threshold, they can be released back into a community. And the community that they’re most likely to be most violent against are the illegally present communities in these cities. They’re victimizing their own population.”
But for Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, the prospect of her family being broken up by and ICE deportation order looms as a larger threat than gang violence.
Molina said she holds out hope that Tillis will eventually agree to meet with her family, and maybe even meet her mother.
“We’ve seen support from him for immigration before,” she said. “We know he has a heart. We have confidence he’ll use good judgment. My mother is here just trying to make a living, not harming anyone.”