A symbol of sanctuary for others to follow

June 19, 2017

Joel Sronce reports from North Carolina on a grassroots effort to save one woman from being ripped away from her home that shows the potential for ongoing organizing.

MORE THAN 100 people packed St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, for a May 31 press conference welcoming Juana Luz Tobar Ortega into sanctuary within the church's walls.

Juana was supposed to meet that morning with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and board a plane bound for her home country of Guatemala. Instead, she was received by Rev. Randall Keeney and his congregation, who voted unanimously to provide Juana refuge in their church.

At the press conference, her family joined faith leaders, community activists and supporters to collectively state their commitment to do whatever it takes to ensure that Juana not be torn away from her home in North Carolina.

Following the reception at St. Barnabas, dozens of people gathered outside of the office of North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis in High Point, North Carolina, to call on the senator to show support for Juana by submitting a stay of removal. A week later, dozens of supporters gathered to discuss how to further build momentum during a community meeting at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro.

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega speaks to supporters after taking sanctuary in a Greensboro church
Juana Luz Tobar Ortega speaks to supporters after taking sanctuary in a Greensboro church (Leoneda Inge | WUNC)

The different actions surrounding Juana's case have demonstrated how communities can come together and organize to protect people, uniting the religious-based sanctuary movement with a broad-based struggle for solidarity.

For Juana, her family and her supporters, sanctuary is not just a last resort. It's the start of a campaign.

JUANA HAS called the U.S. her home for almost 25 years. She's a mother of four--two children are U.S. citizens, and two are protected under the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program--and grandmother of two.

After escaping violence in Guatemala in 1992, Juana immediately applied for asylum in the U.S. but was denied. She appealed the denial and received a work permit while her case was being processed.

In 1999, her oldest daughter, who was living with her grandmother in Guatemala, became very ill. Juana returned home to care for her. After her daughter's health improved and Juana came back to the U.S., her hopes for asylum were destroyed when she was picked up by immigration authorities during a raid at her workplace.

After spending time in detention centers in North Carolina and Georgia, she was eventually released on the condition that she report to ICE officers for regular check-ins. Juana did so for more than a decade, but when she returned earlier this year, she was denied an extension and instructed to leave the country by the end of May.

The orders were a direct result of the priority deportation policy changes under the current administration. Since mid-April, Juana has been forced to wear an ankle monitor. She was ordered to purchase her airline ticket to Guatemala, which her family paid for to buy her time.

When her attorney's appeal for a stay was denied, Juana was forced to make a choice: Get on a plane back to Guatemala, leaving her family and returning to the risk of violence--or find a place of sanctuary.

The sanctuary movement that has resurfaced since Trump took office has its roots in the 1980s, when interfaith organizations began to shelter refugees fleeing U.S.-backed campaigns of state violence against radical insurgencies in Central America. Those religious communities actively engaged in civil disobedience, a U.S. tradition that has roots in the Underground Railroad and beyond.

The sanctuary movement of the 1980s was one component of a broad-based movement. This can inform today's struggle: Wider collaboration between groups is essential for the mass movement needed so that Juana and others may remain at home.

We also need to remember something else: The Democrats have contributed as much as Republicans to the anti-immigrant climate. When deportations and raids increased under George W. Bush, immigrants and activists put their hopes in Barack Obama--only to have them dashed by Obama's record of more deportations than any preceding president.

Though Trump has set in motion the unprecedented onslaught against all immigrants, he has inherited a system built up by conservatives and liberals alike.

THOSE AT the community meeting for Juana on June 7 included her family and friends, community organizers, and members of St. Barnabas and other religious congregations around Greensboro. Several members of other churches attended the meeting to begin exploring how they might offer sanctuary in their own places of worship.

Though organizers began the meeting with a discussion of the history of sanctuary and modern immigration policies, the primary goal of the meeting centered around Juana's current needs while at St. Barnabas as well as measures to take beyond sanctuary. Juana is the first person to live in sanctuary in North Carolina in many years, and she's one of nine people currently in sanctuary across the country.

Due to the growing danger under the current administration, many others may seek sanctuary in the weeks and months to come. With legal options sharply diminished, organizers are seeking out new strategies based on developing public support through mass campaigns.

Juana's advocates at the Congregational UCC split into groups to discuss ways in which they could use creative action to apply pressure to those in power and to foreground Juana's story in the media and the hearts and minds of those in Greensboro and beyond.

Ideas poured out, including: Create a website to share information and strategies among churches providing or interested in providing sanctuary; and organize a Las Posadas in July, in which supporters invoke a religious tradition to march and carry pictures of those needing sanctuary. There were many more suggestions for developing support through documentaries, concerts, art pieces, house parties, and options of sponsorships from restaurants, breweries and cafes.

Among those in attendance was Lesvi Molina, Juana's oldest daughter, who fell sick in Guatemala many years ago. For Lesvi, the support at St. Barnabas, at Sen. Tillis' office and at the Congregational UCC has been incredible. "It's a blessing to have the community, people who don't even know you, come together to help my mother be free again," Lesvi said.

But it's not only the support of those in the community that has created the momentum around her mother's case--it's Juana herself, representing an open door for others who have been afraid to come forward.

"[Going into sanctuary] privately was never a thought," Lesvi explained. "She has sought asylum for so long, checking with immigration, doing the right things, not even thinking about hiding. We want it solved. We're not going to get it solved by hiding."

Mulling over the decades her mother has struggled to remain in the U.S., Lesvi's frustrations were clear: "Why would they want to deport her now?" Lesvi asked, citing Juana's children, grandchildren and contributions to her church, her kids' schools and her community. "It's cruel, and it doesn't make any sense."

But when she thinks of her mother risking everything to return to Guatemala to care for her, Lesvi becomes filled with such courage. "Thanks to her bravery and decision-making, I am here today," Lesvi proclaimed. "As her eldest, I'm going to fight this to the end."

Juana's campaign is the result of a broad collaboration of groups anchored by American Friends Service Committee, Indivisible groups, ACLU People Power, local nonprofits, congregations, and other groups and individuals politicized by the 2016 election result.

Thanks to the courage of Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, Greensboro is seeing collaboration between religious organizations such as St. Barnabas offering sanctuary refuge and the broad struggle for solidarity by activists on the political left. Their work together represents an effort to develop the political movement needed to move toward liberation for all.

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