Rosa Gutierrez Lopez was frightened when immigration officials told her she had to leave the United States by December 10, 2018.
The 40-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador had been living in the U.S. since 2005. She lived in northern Virginia, doing restaurant work and other jobs. She is the mother of three U.S. citizens.
Gutierrez Lopez received deferred action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, after she was detained in 2014 for being in the country illegally.
Each year, she checked in with ICE and her request for deferred action was granted. Her lawyer says the renewal was mainly granted because her young children are American citizens and one of them has a genetic disorder.
In 2017, however, the first year of the Trump administration, Rosa noticed a difference when she reported to ICE for her yearly check-in.
“I was told to report to a different location and the official there began asking me all sorts of questions – questions they had never asked me before,” she told VOA, speaking in Spanish.
In the end, ICE did not renew her deferment. Officials ordered her to leave the country. She also had to wear an electronic device to record her movements.
But then, a friend told her about sanctuary Christian religious centers and she was able to find one.
Since mid-December, Gutierrez Lopez has been living at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
She is the first publicly known case in the Washington, D.C. area since churches across the nation began resisting the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
While she lives in sanctuary, her lawyers are requesting her asylum because of high rates of organized crime in El Salvador. Criminal groups killed three of her close family members in recent years. Gutierrez Lopez fears the same will happen to her if she returns.
Hector Perez Casillas is the immigration lawyer representing her. He believes she would be in serious danger if she returned to El Salvador.
“They would be immediately targeted because they know that: A) she’s been here in the United States for so long; B) she has American children; and C) one of them is ill, making her an extra vulnerable target."
Church sanctuaries grow
Gutierrez Lopez is one of 50 undocumented immigrants known to have sought sanctuary in 39 churches across the country. That information comes from the Church World Service, or CWS.
While the total number of people now in sanctuary is unknown, the CWS notes there has been an increase since the start of the Trump administration.
At that time, there were 37 reported cases. The number of churches offering sanctuary also rose from 400 in 2017 to more than 1,100 today.
Noel Andersen is with the CWS. He says the Trump administration’s policy of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants who have no criminal records is responsible for the increase.
The churches, in Anderson’s words, “see that people are being dehumanized.”
Though sanctuary churches may fear government raids, for now immigration authorities are obeying the established tradition of staying out of churches, schools and hospitals.
Steve Camarota agrees with the tradition, but has strong criticism for the sanctuary movement. He is the research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, or CIS, an organization based in Washington, D.C.
"It's understandable why in any individual case, you might say, ‘Well, couldn't we make an exception for this nice guy, this nice lady.' And I think everyone feels a lot of sympathy for that. But when you do that, you end up with the scale of illegal immigration that we now have.”
The American non-profit organization, Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal support organization, identifies CIS as a hate group. It accuses CIS of publicizing white nationalist and anti-Semitic ideas.
Reverend Abhi Janamanchi is the religious leader at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, where Gutierrez Lopez is staying. He said cases like hers get a lot of support and media attention.
“So far, we’ve received…offers of support even from total strangers,” he told VOA.
Acting as a sanctuary is a big project, involving many volunteers. Janamanchi said the Cedar Lane Church has 150 volunteers providing services such as meals, language services and security.
Because Gutierrez Lopez cannot leave church grounds without risking arrest, her children visit on weekends. But only her daughter fully understands why she remains at the church.
“My daughter, who is 11 -- she does know. She tells me: ‘Mommy, I miss you, I want you to be in our home.’ But I tell her I can’t,” she said.
Her life at the Cedar Lane Church is likely to continue for some time. Janamanchi has promised the church would support her "for as long as it takes."
I’m Alice Bryant.
Bill Rodgers reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
deferred action – n. an immigration status that delays deportation
grant – v. to agree to do, give, or allow something asked for or hoped for
location – n. a place or position
sanctuary – n. a place where someone or something is protected or given shelter
church – n. a building that is used for Christian religious services
vulnerable – adj. open to attack, harm, or damage
deport – v. to force a person who is not a citizen to leave a country
scale – n. the size or level of something especially in comparison to something else