First woman to go into sanctuary in NC marks seven months

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Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a Guatemalan woman who came to North Carolina in 1993, is marking seven months as the first person to take sanctuary in a North Carolina church to avoid a deportation order.

Up until April 20, 2017, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega had gone to work every day in a garment factory in High Point. The Randolph County resident had raised her family and played an active role in her church, Iglesia Avivamiento Poder y Fuego in Asheboro.

A native of Guatemala, Ortega fled the country in 1992 after receiving death threats because of her refusal to join rebel forces that sought to overthrow the government — a conflict that was a legacy of a 1954 CIA-backed coup that precipitated nearly half a century of civil war. After settling in North Carolina in 1993, Ortega returned to Guatemala in late ’90s to care for her ailing daughter. Her decision to purchase a fraudulent visa in 1999 to return to North Carolina constituted the violation that would lead to her arrest by US Immigration & Customs Enforcement 12 years later. But after about a week in detention, Ortega was released without explanation, and the otherwise law-abiding mother, wife and breadwinner was allowed to resume life as usual.

Until April 20, that is, when under a new zero-tolerance policy by the Trump administration, ICE ordered her to leave the country.

“It was like everything disappeared,” Ortega said, as she wiped tears from her cheek during a recent interview in the fellowship hall at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro. “Everything ended. That’s when 25 years of work ended.”

Three days before her May 31 deadline for leaving the country, Ortega moved into St. Barnabas to take sanctuary. The centuries-old custom of churches providing protection for vulnerable persons against oppressive civil authority has been a recognized through a policy formalized by ICE in 2011 to refrain from taking enforcement action in churches, along with other sensitive locations like schools and hospitals.

When the American Friends Service Committee approached St. Barnabas with the proposal to host Ortega, it didn’t take the church long to agree. The congregation had already undergone a process of discernment and prayer after receiving a request from another family seeking sanctuary. Due to the first family’s particular circumstances, the church wasn’t able to accommodate them, but members felt prepared when the American Friends Service Committee brought Ortega’s plight to them.

“We didn’t think so much in political terms,” recalled Leslie Bland, a deacon at St. Barnabas. “We thought in terms of, how do we see the whole person and the family being able to stay together. With the current political scene, families are torn apart. Families are separated from each other and aren’t able to see each other again. That’s not part of God’s plan. God is a loving God, and wants to build up rather than break down people.”

With her husband and two youngest children maintaining their home in Randolph County, Ortega has taken up residence in a former nursery in the church. Her family members frequently visit with food. On New Year’s Eve, members of Ortega’s home church held a service at St. Barnabas, as they frequently do.

Even with family and church friends visiting often, Ortega said it’s been tough having to spend the holidays away from home.

“It’s been especially difficult these days with Christmas,” she said, “because last year I could run around outside going shopping, and talking about what we’re going to cook at home.”

Since Ortega was forced to give up her job at San-Gar Enterprises in High Point, her daughter, Lesvi Molina, said the family’s income has been cut in half. Two supporters pitched in to buy sewing machines, which occupy the anteroom adjacent to her living quarters. Ortega sews pillows, and has learned to make purses and to crochet. Her family sells the products to bring in additional income.

Bland said the St. Barnabas congregation has been enriched by Ortega’s presence.

“Juana does a tremendous amount for us,” Bland said. “We don’t ask her to. She’s a wonderful, caring person. She depends on her strong faith. She cleans, she cooks, she sews, not just for us but for others.”

Volunteers coordinated by Bland stay in the church with Ortega 24 hours a day and seven days a week to protect her from an ICE raid in case the agency suddenly changes or departs from its policy.

“We have somebody here to be watchful and to be available if someone comes to the door,” Bland said. “ICE isn’t supposed to come here. They haven’t and they probably won’t.”

The monitors include members of St. Barnabas and other congregations, along with volunteers from the American Friends Service Committee and FaithAction International House, UNCG students and educators.

The beginning of the new year marks seven months that Ortega has been in sanctuary. She was the first of four people to take sanctuary in North Carolina churches; one, Minerva Garcia, has already come out of sanctuary after an immigration judge vacated her deportation order.

Ortega’s supporters have continuously pleaded with US Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) to intervene on her behalf with ICE, so far to no avail. In September, Tillis and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), introduced the SUCCEED Act to allow young people who came to the United States as minors to obtain legal status if they overcome a rigorous set of hurdles, but the bill doesn’t address the plight of unauthorized migrants like Ortega, who otherwise abide by the law. On Dec. 28, Tillis’ office released a statement touting the senator as “a bipartisan leader on immigration reform.” The statement said Tillis is “working on common-sense solutions to secure our borders, provide long-term certainty for undocumented children, and reform temporary worker visa programs that small businesses across the nation depend on to survive and support American jobs.”

Ortega said Tillis has remained silent on her plight.

“To this day, he’s never responded,” she said. “He’s never come. He’s never sent anyone.”

Tillis’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Although ICE’s shift from targeted to blanket enforcement occurred under President Trump’s orders, Ortega directed her plea to the agency rather than the president.

“To ICE, I would really tell them to leave me alone,” she said. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to go back to my home.”

juana ortega lesvi molina
Juana Luz Tobar Ortega with her daughter, Lesvi Molina

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