Gimme Shelter

Sanctuary churches are an immigration purgatory

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Every day in February, Rosa Ortez Cruz waited for the mail at four o’clock. Sometimes the secretary brought it to her. Sometimes the secretary left early, and Cruz ran to search through the wire mailbox for it herself. To reach the mailbox, she had to pass through a communal room filled with bookshelves and an often-packed conference table. It was the same route she took every time she needed to use the bathroom.

She was supposed to receive the letter on January 28, ninety days after her lawyer argued in court for why she should be allowed to remain in the United States with her family. But she still hadn’t received her letter when I met her on February 11, which meant she was still living in the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a building she hadn’t left since April 2018. She was even scared to venture into the church courtyard, scared that she would be caught and it would all be over.

Welcome, Stranger

Much of America went inside three weeks ago, and after twenty-one days, as of this writing, most of us are marveling and despairing at how claustrophobic, counterintuitive, and, well, odd it is to be trapped in our homes. To suddenly live in a world where obtaining groceries, going for a walk, visiting the doctor, has become an ethical calculus. But long before social distancing and quarantine orders gave the rest of us a taste of this life, Ortez Cruz was an expert. She is one of approximately fifty-three undocumented immigrants who are defying their deportation orders by sheltering in sanctuary churches in the United States. The concept of sanctuary sounds baroque and medieval, but the principle is simple: if for whatever reason you run afoul of the civil authorities, head to the physical confines of a church, where those authorities will not touch you. Mention the sanctuary movement to many Americans and they think of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Sanctuary is currently a reality for dozens living in the United States. The people who seek sanctuary are out of options. They’ve received their deportation orders and the paths remaining to them are to hide (which some do); return to their native countries (which few do); or connect with a congregation that’s made the decision to become a sanctuary church.

The latest chapter of the sanctuary movement began in 2017, according to Rachel Baker, immigration advocacy program coordinator at the North Carolina Council of Churches, soon after the Trump administration cracked down on immigration both legal and illegal and began issuing deportation orders for people who had been in the United States for decades.

The list of people who’ve been in sanctuary since 2017 includes men, women, and some children, spread all over the country, with clusters in Colorado, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. At one point, according to Baker, North Carolina had the highest number of immigrants in the country living in sanctuary, the so-called North Carolina Sanctuary Six, but it’s since dropped to four, among them Ortez Cruz.

Ortez Cruz fled to the United States in 2002, after her ex-boyfriend tried to kill her in her native Honduras. Ortez Cruz didn’t realize that she could apply for asylum as a survivor of domestic violence. She settled in Washington, D.C., had her children, and eventually moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. She was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Obama, but his administration did not separate families as a matter of policy, so she was allowed to remain in the States. Then came Trump. Facing deportation, she made the decision to go into sanctuary while she waited for the court to decide whether to grant her asylum.

I visited Ortez Cruz with Mar Gutierrez, a Spanish professor who befriended Cruz after she went into sanctuary. Gutierrez and I brought her shrimp tacos, orange juice, and a twenty-two-ounce Heineken from a local Mexican restaurant. The building where Ortez Cruz lives looks like a house from the outside, but inside we dined at what was clearly a meeting table for the church staff. Ortez Cruz flopped into a chair and Gutierrez poured us the beer. “To your freedom!” she toasted as we raised the cups to our lips.

Ortez Cruz is one of approximately fifty-three undocumented immigrants who are defying their deportation orders by sheltering in sanctuary churches in the United States.

When Ortez Cruz, thirty-eight, first entered sanctuary, she lost sixty pounds thanks to hula hoops and exercise machines. She started making hats using a penguin-shaped knitting machine, and she began cooking and selling pupusas at the church every other Sunday to make some money. But by the night we met in February, Ortez Cruz was too tired to do much of anything. “I don’t see the end,” she said. She scrolled through her phone, looking for pictures of her fifteen-year-old daughter’s quinceañera, which they recently held at the church so that Cruz wouldn’t have to miss it.

While we were eating, a volunteer knocked at the door: she was hosting, which is a term for the practice of staying overnight at a sanctuary church. Sanctuary congregations make sure that the immigrants are never left alone so that if ICE shows up, a third party can run interference, call help, and film the encounter. “It’s like having a bodyguard,” Ortez Cruz said. It was clear that her years in the church were weighing on her. Anxiety had destroyed her stomach. She couldn’t sleep. She needed a physical, a pap smear. She wasn’t talking to her children much because the younger ones were asking her too many questions and she had no answers. She played a voicemail from her lawyer, in Spanish, from earlier that day, explaining that there was nothing they could do to prompt the court to make a decision.

“I can’t do anything for myself. I feel so useless,” she said.

Our House, in the Medieval Street

By taking sanctuary in a church, Cruz is part of a centuries-old tradition in Western society. Karl Shoemaker, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the author of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, explained to me that historians trace the Christian concept of sanctuary to Roman practices. After the fall of Rome, churches guarded their right to remain nonviolent, inviolable spaces. At least part of their motive, Shoemaker felt, was that they wanted to hold onto this special privilege in the face of the expanding secular state.

Throughout medieval European Christendom, fugitives used sanctuary as leverage: when they committed a crime, they would flee to the church and wait until everyone had cooled off before negotiating for some kind of reconciliation. The practice remained ad hoc throughout much of Europe, but in the High Middle Ages, as England developed a centralized government and legal system, civil authorities there actually codified the process. Many sanctuary cases ended with the accused confessing their crime to an official and then agreeing to leave England forever within forty days. It was a useful, efficient system for shipping criminals off to France.

By the 1500s, a few English institutions had developed a practice of protecting sanctuary seekers forever, with no deportation. These spaces, called “liberties,” drew real opposition from some of their contemporaries. “A lot of criticisms of sanctuary that begin to arise in the 1500s are really aimed at these permanent sanctuaries, in which ecclesiastical institutions held some kind of charter in which the crown had no right to enter and take anyone,” Shoemaker said.

Sanctuary eventually fell out of favor in the seventeenth century, and the practice died out by the early modern and industrial periods. Then came the 1980s. Civil wars ripped through Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala while Honduras suffered through a U.S.-backed dirty war against communists. People in Arizona started helping refugees cross the Mexican border, which led to the country’s first modern sanctuary movement in the United States. Those immigrants got some relief when the government granted temporary protective status to asylum seekers from the wars, and the practice fell out of use again—until 2017.

I asked Shoemaker about the continuity between the sanctuary movements of the medieval period and today. “The churches who are doing it right now are closest to the very earliest Christian communities who practiced sanctuary,” he said. “They were very concerned with oppressive and overreaching Roman imperial authority and saw their congregations as an effective buffer against what they would have called tyranny.”

When Hell ICEs Over

So often, the faces of Christianity in America are Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham, its values racism, repression, and irrational justifications for voting against rational social programs. For some, the religion is associated with homophobia, the repression of abortion rights, and a misguided nostalgia for some kind of 1950s dystopia.

“If Christianity is that, then I have no problem with rejecting it,” said Randall Keeney, the vicar at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, whose congregation has been sheltering an undocumented immigrant named Juana Tobar Ortega since May 2017. I met Keeney at his office, a space filled with derbies and trilbys (he confesses having a weakness for hats); on a shelf, a hymnal rested next to a Calvin and Hobbes book. Keeney explained that the American Friends Service Committee, the political justice arm of Quakerism, introduced his congregation to Tobar Ortega in May 2017.

I asked Keeney why he wanted to helm a sanctuary congregation, and he spoke, in a measured Georgian accent, about Judeo-Christian theology. A cornerstone of his faith, he said, involves sheltering fugitives and protecting strangers. “That whole process was institutionalized by Joshua in Judges, and Jesus talked about it on a regular basis. It’s just built into our history and theology,” he said.

Keeney is also inspired by a more recent episode in Western history: the Underground Railroad, which is thought to have had a southern terminus at Greensboro’s Guilford College. “We can be citizens and supporters, but there are some things that we cannot support and we will actively work against. Like slavery, indentured servitude,” he told me. “Like targeting people for being undocumented. You draw a line in the sand and say, we’re going to do what we have to do.”

Many immigrants who enter sanctuary believe that they will be there for a few months. Tobar Ortega hasn’t left the St. Barnabas grounds for almost three years.

Keeney was arrested with the minister and political activist William Barber in 2013 at one of the Moral Monday protests, which were a series of civil disobedience actions taken by religious progressives against the North Carolina legislature. I asked him if he was afraid of being arrested again. After all, John Fife, one of the founders of the sanctuary movement in Arizona in the 1980s, was convicted of violating federal immigration laws, and Scott Warren, a teacher, faced felony charges in 2019 after helping undocumented immigrants in Arizona. Keeney said he worries about it a bit, but it doesn’t keep him up at night. It all comes back to reputation: How would it look for ICE to burst into a church and arrest a vicar?

This led me to another question: Why does the government defer to sanctuary at all? In the Middle Ages, the respect stemmed from a fear of breaking social norms and flouting convention. “You don’t send soldiers in, you don’t drag people out. The respect for sanctuary was a tenet of good kingship,” Shoemaker explained.

Centuries later, there’s no legal mechanism stopping ICE from storming into a church. But on ICE’s website, you’ll find a page that explains that except in cases where public safety is at stake, officials do not operate in so-called sensitive locations: schools, courthouses, and churches. This language stems from a memo circulated in 2014 during the Obama administration. It’s not clear the extent to which the Trump administration has abandoned the memo; ICE has stormed courthouses in recent years, but so far, no agents have set foot in a church. According to Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell, there’s only one thing stopping the government from storming into these churches. “It’s optics,” he said.

But sometimes that’s not enough. In November 2018, Samuel Oliver-Bruno, one of the North Carolina Sanctuary Six, had been living in CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham for eleven months when he received a request from ICE: they asked him to appear in person to give his fingerprints, which they said was a necessary part of his petition to have his order of deportation canceled. He listened to them, left the church, and when he appeared in the office, they arrested him.

“ICE lies all the time,” said Keeney.

Here is the House, Here is the Steeple

On a Sunday in mid-February, I headed back to Reconciliation in Chapel Hill and ended up talking with Marty Propst, a congregant who was selling coffee to the parishioners and hungry Chapel Hillians who had wandered in to enjoy Ortez Cruz’s pupusas. While Ortez Cruz bustled through the church kitchen measuring oil, Propst told me that the conversation about whether to become a sanctuary congregation was easy to initiate, but that it had been harder to come to a final decision.

“We were a bit nervous,” she said, adding that she had always been in favor, though the congregation was split. They formed committees to investigate whether they could support taking care of another human being living in their church for an indefinite amount of time.

“It appealed to what I feel the church is,” she said. “It was something active I could do. I’m not much of a philosopher of religion. I believe in doing something.” She added that one unexpected skill that she and the other parishioners had to develop was the fine art of backing off. Ortez Cruz didn’t want them to do everything for her. Sometimes she just wanted to be left alone.

While I talked with Propst, Ortez Cruz took a break from making pupusas and sat at a table with her family, who had come over from Greensboro to visit. Valentine’s Day balloons bobbed behind them; a little boy ran around their table, showing off his toy truck. She bent over, deep in conversation. She looked more relaxed but also exhausted.

No Church in the Wild

In some ways, Cruz was lucky: she had a case. Juana Tobar Ortega, the woman living in St. Barnabas in Greensboro, did not. She had been given a final deportation order and there was no way forward for her through the courts. Her only chance was to have a member of Congress intervene on her behalf and ask for an injunction against her deportation order, which does happen sometimes but seems unlikely in the current immigration climate, said Keeney.

Tobar Ortega immigrated to Los Angeles from Guatemala in 1992 when she was a teenager. In 1993, she moved to Asheboro, North Carolina. She married, had four children, and found work as a seamstress. She joined a Pentecostal church. Her children grew up, got Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), married, had their own children.

But Tobar Ortega was here as a so-called illegal. In the 1990s, she applied for asylum but had to return to Guatemala during the process when one of her daughters, who she’d temporarily left at home, became sick. Because she left the United States, her case was thrown out. In 2001, she was told to leave the country. She didn’t. Then, in 2011, she was arrested and detained for nine days in Georgia. Upon release, they told her that she could stay in the United States—so long as she checked in with ICE every year.

In 2017, when she went for her annual check-in, ICE slapped an ankle bracelet on her and told her she had thirty days to leave the country. Her family and life were here; she hadn’t lived in Guatemala since she was a teenager. Together, she and her family made the difficult decision that she would go into sanctuary.

Many immigrants who enter sanctuary believe that they will be there for a few months. Tobar Ortega hasn’t left the St. Barnabas grounds for almost three years. “She says it’s pretty sad. She doesn’t wish this upon anybody. Being here is like being in jail with certain privileges,” said her daughter Lesvi Molina, translating.

Baker and other activists are hopeful that they can save the fifty-three people currently living in sanctuary.

Tobar Ortega texts with Ortez Cruz over in Chapel Hill daily. Her family regularly visits from Asheboro or church volunteers sit with her. On a typical day, she wakes up, takes a shower, makes herself some food, then starts sewing or fulfilling food orders from people who call to request that she cook them something. Immigrants living in sanctuary still want to make money, so, like Ortez Cruz with her pupusas, many of them cook for the community or take on freelance craft projects. In nice weather, Tobar Ortega will go sit in the church garden.

Tobar Ortega’s lucky: she has more space and privacy than many people in sanctuary. I sat and talked with her in a community room, but she also showed me her bedroom, which stretches back off a hallway in the church’s community center. Cloth, spools of thread, and a measuring tape cascaded over a row of sewing machines beneath a cross and a poster pleading Tobar Ortega’s case; on the cinderblock wall above her bed, she had taped a series of construction paper drawings and notes. On her bed, her tiny, swaddled grandson, barely a month old, slept through it all.

I asked Tobar Ortega if she ever thinks about giving up. Her daughter relayed the question to her, then translated the answer: “Sometimes, yeah, of course.”

Under House of God Arrest

There’s another, more cynical parallel between the sanctuary movement and the Underground Railroad: sanctuary is a noble and stirring concept, but it doesn’t save that many people. For every slave spirited north on the railroad, thousands stayed in chains; for every immigrant who makes the news in sanctuary, there are thousands living in hiding, undocumented, and many more who never make it to America in the first place.

The first time I visited a sanctuary church, in Germany in January 2015, I spoke to a pastor named Silke whose congregation was hosting a group of immigrants who needed a place to shelter while they tried to convince the German government to let them stay. The church was housing them in office buildings, congregational halls, even an unused chapel in the graveyard. “You come out and say, we did so much for the refugees—but then you read the newspaper and realize you did nothing at all for the wider situation,” Silke told me.

Silke’s perspective is sobering but realistic: it’s disheartening to think that saving the North Carolina Sanctuary Four, or even all fifty-three individuals living in sanctuary in the United States, won’t ameliorate the system that drove dozens of desperate people to spend years hiding out in churches in the first place. Then there’s the fact that no one knows if these people will be saved. Most go into sanctuary hoping they will be free in a few months; now many of them have been trapped for years. Baker, from the North Carolina Council of Churches, said it’s unlikely we’ll see another flurry of sanctuary requests in this current chapter of the story: people are reluctant to spend years of their life under house arrest.

And yet there is value in sharing these stories. When I first started reporting this piece, people asked how I was getting access. They figured that churches and immigrants alike would want to keep this quiet, for their safety. But it turns out that churches and advocates want these stories in the news. They want people paying attention. “When I do trainings for sanctuary, we talk about the two-fold goal,” said Jennie Belle, a community organizer at Church World Services. “Winning cases at the local level and then this larger prophetic voice that we’re trying to raise up: churches stand for welcome, we will do whatever we have to do to keep people safe. A media hook, if you will, but a prophetic voice, is how I would phrase it.” She added, “We try to keep people’s stories in the limelight.”

Individuals’ stories can move people. They can put a face to a faceless issue. They can make the public pay attention. And Baker and other activists are hopeful that they can save the fifty-three people currently living in sanctuary: their most urgent project this year is preparing to spring into action and push for freedom if Trump loses his reelection bid this fall.

And sometimes, sanctuary can pay off. On February 26, Ortez Cruz got a call from her lawyer: the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia lifted her deportation order. She’s now waiting for a lower court to give her a work permit, and then she’ll be free, for the first time in almost two years, to leave the church. She’s won.

I messaged Ortez Cruz on Facebook to congratulate her. In response, she sent me a video about her good news from a local ABC affiliate station. In it, she walks outside the church, wearing red, strolling beneath a colonnade past blooming daffodils, scrubby February grass, cars waiting in the parking lot, the weak sun on her face, a simple thing.

Emily Cataneo is a writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

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