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A mother sought sanctuary in a church basement in 2017. She's still there

“We need to violate the law in order to do the right thing, and the right thing for me is to be a mother,” says Juana Tobar Ortega.
Image: Juana Tobar Ortega
Juana Tobar Ortega, 46, reads the Bible in her basement bedroom of the St. Barnabas Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Surrounded by drawings made by her granddaughter, Ortega has spent nearly two years in the church basement in order to avoid deportation back to her home country, Guatemala.Annie Rose Ramos

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Jackeline Tobar noticed the signs of her mother’s absence immediately. Flowers weren’t blooming in the garden. Furniture wasn’t constantly being rearranged in the living room. And then there was the kitchen.

“She always uses vegetables to cook,” Tobar, 23, said, “but after the first week, the vegetables were still sitting there, rotting.”

That was almost two years ago.

In April 2017, her mother, Juana Tobar Ortega, was ordered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to self-deport to her native Guatemala by May. Instead, she packed up her clothes, left her home and family in Greensboro, North Carolina, and moved into a nearby church where she sought sanctuary.

She has not stepped out the church since.

When Ortega thinks of the home she left behind, where her husband and two youngest children still live, she begins to cry.

“I planted flowers, and they’re all dead now,” she said in Spanish, through tears.

“The truth is, I miss everything.”

Ortega is one of 46 immigrants staying in churches across 15 states to avoid deportation, according to Church World Service, a faith-based organization that tries to keep a record of people seeking sanctuary in America. Ortega was the first to seek sanctuary in a North Carolina church after President Donald Trump took office.

Immigrants who claim sanctuary are counting on an ICE policy that bars federal agents from making arrests inside “sensitive” locations, which include churches, hospitals and schools.

During the Obama administration, the cases of immigrants who had not committed crimes, like Ortega, were not considered “enforcement priorities,” meaning their deportation orders were not enforced.

Image: Jackeline Tobar
Jackeline Tobar, Ortega's daughter, working on a puzzle at St. Barnabas Church. She comes to visit her mother every Thursday and sometimes stays the night during school breaks. Tobar is studying zoology in college and says sometimes she brings her study groups to the church basement so her Mom can be a part of her life.Annie Rose Ramos

Once Trump took office, all of that changed. ICE arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions more than tripled in the first full 14 months of his presidency compared to the final 14 months of the Obama administration, growing from 19,128 to 58,010, according to ICE.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said churches have an obligation to protect families from separation. His own church in Sacramento, California, opened its doors to migrants starting 2016.

“Until we accomplish lasting, comprehensive immigration reform, churches have every right to provide a safe haven for hard-working, God-fearing individuals and families not involved in nefarious activities, regardless of immigration status,” Rodriguez said.

Life in the church

Ortega came to the U.S. from Guatemala 25 years ago. At the time, her cousin was living in North Carolina and told her there’d be factory work if she could get there, so she crossed into the U.S. illegally.

In 2011, ICE officers raided the fabric company where she worked and she was detained. She was released, but she had to check in with ICE annually. She did so, and she received a stay of removal six times.

Then Trump took office. Shortly afterward, ICE outfitted her with an ankle monitor and ordered her to self-deport back to Guatemala by May 2017.

Instead, she moved into St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro.

Ortega feels trapped inside her cinder block room in the church basement, but she believes sanctuary is her only option for staying in the U.S., near her family.

Image: Juana Tobar Ortega
Juana Tobar Ortega holds a bowl she made with some clay donated to the church. Ortega tried to keep busy by making arts and crafts - some of which she sells to members of the community. She's also recently started a catering company, selling tamales she made in the church kitchen.Annie Rose Ramos

Each of Ortega’s four children visits her weekly, and her husband, Carlos Ortega, stays at the church all weekend.

To keep busy, Ortega uses her sewing machine to make aprons and pillows she can sell to the community. She’s also started a catering business from the church’s kitchen.

Randall Keeney, pastor of St. Barnabas, said the church has tightened security to protect Ortega. Trained volunteers now answer the door, in case an ICE officer is looking for her.

“If she has to open the door, and the person happens to be an ICE agent, then they would take her,” Keeney said.

The church also installed an alarm on the driveway that goes off when anybody arrives, so volunteers are alerted to visitors.

The church sanctuary movement

Before moving into St. Barnabas, Ortega had never been to the church. She was connected with St. Barnabas through the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker advocacy organization that runs a program called Siembra North Carolina to prevent immigrants in the state from being deported.

Keeney said he doesn’t know how a church could say no to anyone seeking sanctuary. For him, this is a way his congregation can fight against an immigration crackdown that he says does not recognize how it is affecting people.

“It labels people illegal or legal, and it forgets their humanity,” he said.

North Carolina is home to four congregations hosting immigrants in sanctuary. The clergy from those churches formed a Sanctuary Coalition that meets monthly to discuss their advocacy work and how to support each other.

CityWell United Methodist Church in Greensboro, one of the coalition’s members, hosted Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a Mexican immigrant, from December 2017 until December 2018, when he took the advice of an attorney to leave the church and meet with officials for a biometric medical screening, a required step in the legal process for Deferred Action.

Image: Children artwork
Ortega's two granddaughters decorated the cinderblock walls of their grandmother's basement bedroom where she sleeps at St. Barnabas Church in Greensboro. The girls' drawings say things like "family should be free," and "my grandma will stay."Annie Rose Ramos

Oliver-Bruno went to the appointment accompanied by dozens of CityWell Church members who conducted a worship service at the USCIS office, hoping that their presence and prayers would be considered an extension of the church and that he’d still be protected by the sanctuary policy. He was not.

At the appointment, Oliver-Bruno was taken into custody by immigration officials and deported.

His deportation struck fear into immigrants like Ortega. His case was a lesson to avoid leaving the church at all costs.

Ortega has no other legal options to remain in the U.S. She’s “received extensive access to the legal system, and has no lawful basis to remain in the country,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said. After spending more than $20,000 on three immigration attorneys, she doesn’t currently have legal representation, said Andrew Willis Garces, coordinator with Siembra North Carolina.

‘She’s doing it because of us’

Keeney said Ortega can stay at St. Barnabas as long as she likes. Ortega said she is willing to stay indefinitely, for her children’s sake. “My family needs me, so I’m willing to live this way,” she said.

But Tobar, who is studying zoology at Davidson County Community College, doesn’t want her mother to be trapped in the church because of her family.

“I know that she’s doing it because of us, but I want her to think of herself,” Tobar said, crying.

Ortega, though, says her family comes first — even if the Trump administration’s policies don’t recognize that.

“We need to violate the law in order to do the right thing, and the right thing for me is to be a mother,” Ortega said. “They’re laws created by men who don’t understand what it means to be a mother.”

This June, Ortega’s youngest son, Carlitos, will graduate from high school.

“I won’t be able to go to the graduation,” she said. “But we’ll celebrate here,” she motioned to the church basement. “We’ll have happiness here.”