Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, has taken sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church for more than two weeks. What comes next?
As Juana Luz Tobar Ortega settled in for her second week of sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, her supporters gathered at another church in Greensboro to discuss strategies for helping the undocumented immigrant from Guatemala resist her deportation order.
Thought to be the first person to take sanctuary in a North Carolina church in the Trump era, Tobar Ortega’s choice to seek refuge in the church beginning on May 28 was an option of last resort three days before she was scheduled to fly to Guatemala. Tobar Ortega’s decision draws on a centuries-old tradition of civil authorities refraining from seizing people from places of worship and a policy by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, of refraining from carrying out enforcement actions in churches, synagogues and mosques.
Articulated in a 2011 memo by then ICE Director John Morton, the policy calls on agents to generally avoid enforcement actions at a list of so-called “sensitive locations,” including schools, hospital, houses of worship, funerals and weddings, as well as public demonstrations.
In the absence of a clear end game, Tobar Ortega’s action to take refuge in the church buys time for her supporters to devise a strategy for her to stay with her family in North Carolina, and provides them with an opportunity to publicize her case and build support for her campaign.
“We’re not sure how we’re going to win yet,” said organizer Juan Miranda during a community meeting at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro on Wednesday. “This is an experiment we’re all a part of.”
The Rev. Randall Keeney, the pastor at St. Barnabas, said the pastor at Tobar Ortega’s home church in High Point brought her a crawfish dinner and she was eating well. St. Barnabas has upgraded its wifi system to make the facility more inviting to volunteers. ICE’s policy of exemption for places of worship does include some exceptions — such as national security or terrorism matters, an imminent danger to public safety, destruction of evidence, or the arrest of a dangerous felon — although it would be hard to conceive how Tobar Ortega — who has no criminal record — could fall into any of the categories.
“What we need is people who would stay with her,” Keeney said. “We want people there 24-7 so if someone comes to the door, she doesn’t have to answer.”
A group of people with the American Friends Service Committee and FaithAction Advocacy Committee had been working with Tobar Ortega for months before she went public on May 31. The 30 some people who showed up at Congregational United Church of Christ represented a wide array of organizations, including Protect GSO, the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Food Not Bombs and Resist High Point.
Hana Brown, a sociologist professor who is active with Protect GSO, said there’s a nation effort, including the American Friends Service Committee and the National Lawyers Guild, to devise a legal strategy to help people like Tobar Ortega who avail themselves of sanctuary eventually obtain legal status to stay in the United States. At a June 9 rally, the Rev. William Barber, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, offered an undocumented man from Mexico sanctuary in Greenleaf Christian Church, where he serves as pastor in Goldsboro.
“This isn’t just about Juana,” Brown said. “Whatever we do is going to benefit every single immigrant who might need to take sanctuary.”
The coalition supporting Tobar Ortega is currently focusing its efforts on US Sen. Thom Tillis, who has called for incremental immigration reform. In an April 18 op-ed article in the Hill, the Republican lawmaker said reform legislation needs to “address the undocumented population in the United States in a fair and compassionate way,” after securing the border and strengthening interior enforcement.
“Tillis is the person who has done the most for immigrants, surprisingly,” Miranda said. “So we have to keep the pressure on him and bring him over to our side. He’s not going to do it because he’s a nice guy.”
Brown said Tobar Ortega’s supporters are asking Tillis to submit her paperwork for a stay of removal to ICE.
“We want him to step in and take action,” said Lesvi Molina, one of Tobar Ortega’s four children. “We’re pretty confident he’s a man of judgment, and he’s going to make the right decision.”
Tobar Ortega’s supporters brainstormed several ideas for advancing her campaign, primarily geared towards raising money, pressuring government officials and keeping her case in the public eye. They included organizing benefit concerts with celebrity artists and more intimate house shows, fliering the upcoming Fun Fourth Festival, a “Freedom Ride” publicity tour, a documentary film, letters to the editor, and phone bank parties to keep the pressure on Tillis. On June 6, Keeney spoke at the Greensboro City Council meeting, inviting councilmembers to meet Tobar Ortega at his church and imploring them to take action.
Molina said her mother never considered going into hiding to avoid deportation.
“Immigration knew where she was from the beginning,” she said. “She came into the country seeking asylum. She’s been checking in with ICE. There was never a thought of going into hiding. We wanted it to be public. We’re looking for a solution.”
Molina said her mother fled Guatemala in 1992 after receiving letters from armed anti-government rebels pressuring her to join their cause coupled with threats on her life if she didn’t comply. Tobar Ortega first settled in California, and then came to North Carolina in 1993. (A CIA-backed coup in Guatemala preceded a decades-long civil war in the Central American country, which ended in 1996.)
While Tobar Ortega filed for asylum in the United States, her daughter Lesvi Molina stayed behind with her grandparents in Guatemala. When Lesvi fell ill, Tobar Ortega interrupted her asylum application to go back to Guatemala to care for her. Afterwards, Tobar Ortega purchased a fraudulent visa in Guatemala to re-enter the United States.
“Thanks to her decision I am here today,” Lesvi Molina said. “Not only because she’s my mother but because of everything she’s done for me, I’m taking this personally. I’m going to do whatever I can to help her.”
Molina said her mother has worked for San-Gar Enterprises, a contract sewing business in High Point, since 1999. Tobar Ortega married an American citizen, who has attempted without success to sponsor her application for citizenship. In 2011, she was arrested by ICE. Under the Obama administration, ICE maintained a policy of prioritizing criminal immigrants for deportation — a distinction erased through an executive order signed by President Trump soon after his inauguration.
“She was in the Burlington jail for a week,” Molina said of her mother’s ordeal in 2011. “She was transferred to Atlanta. Without explanation, they let her go.”
For Juana Tobar Ortega and her family, Trump’s vow to crack down on illegal immigrants places a desperate exclamation mark on a decades-long struggle that was already weighted with adversity.
“She’s filed her taxes every year,” Molina said. “She’s done everything she can to obtain status. Twenty-three years later we’re still fighting the same battle.”
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