Spending the holidays in sanctuary: local grandmother fears deportation, pleads to stay
The holiday season is supposed to be a time where families get together and celebrate the year with each other. However, one family in Asheboro is missing a key matriarchal figure from the dinner table: their grandmother, mother and wife.
According to a press release sent out by Andrew Willis Garcés, an organizer with The American Friends Service Committee, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega celebrated Christmas “from the confines of the St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro,” where she stays in a room that was converted from a nursery.
Ortega took sanctuary there May 31 of this year to prevent separation from her family after receiving her final order of deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to the release, she was the first of four immigrants seeking sanctuary at various North Carolina congregations.
Garcés wrote in an email that AFSC is 100 years old and has been working to support immigrant communities in the Triad for several decades.
“We give know-your-rights and family safety plan presentations for undocumented immigrants in trailer parks, schools and at businesses; help them defend themselves from attacks by ICE, accompany them to court particularly when we suspect they may be picked up by ICE, and are sponsoring a group of Triad DACA recipients to fight for a DACA solution that also helps other undocumented people.”
According to the release, Ortega arrived in Asheboro, North Carolina, after “fleeing threats of violence in Guatemala.” She has worked at San-Gar Enterprises in High Point for eight years. After being forced to leave her job, she has spent the last several months sewing pillows and cushions at the church in “exchange for donations to help her family replace the income she lost.”
The release states that she is active in her son’s high school and her local church. Her husband received U.S. citizenship before their marriage, and she has two younger children (a 22-year-old daughter, 16-year-old son) who are citizens and two older daughters (who are DACA recipients) and two 10-year-old granddaughters.
I sat down with Ortega and her translator, Nikki Marin Baena (who also volunteers with The American Friends Service Committee) at St. Barnabas on Dec. 21 to talk about how it feels to spend the holidays away from her home.
Ortega said everything changed on April 20, at her Immigration appointment when she was told to leave the country by May 31. She said she also received an ankle bracelet that day that she still has now.
“I felt like my whole world was collapsing on top of me,” Ortega said through translation via Baena. “To think that I would be separated from my family, that I would have to leave my children, that I would have to leave my home, that I would have to leave everything.”
Ortega said she and her family started to pray that God would open a door. She said receiving help from The American Friends Service Committee was a huge blessing because they helped her seek sanctuary at St. Barnabas to stay close to her family.
“It is not easy to have to leave my home,” Ortega said. “It is not easy not to be able to go outside; it is not easy to have to leave my job, all of that is very difficult this is not comfortable to be in sanctuary. It is not convenient or comfortable. But it is the only choice that I have if I want to be with my family.”
When asked why ICE sent her a final order of deportation, Ortega said she was arrested in 2011 after she did not follow through with another deportation order.
“But then they let me go and what they did was they gave me a yearly immigration appointment when I had to go check in at the immigration office in Charlotte,” she said. “From 2012 until this past year, 2017, they gave me a work permit because my husband is a U.S. citizen.”
When asked what she’d be doing for the upcoming holidays, she said her family would be visiting her at the church.
“My family spends nearly every weekend here, so they’ll come here, but it is going to be difficult,” she said. “It is hard not to be able to leave and to basically be locked up here not to be able to go shopping or do the things that I normally did. Things I normally used to do this time of year, I can’t do them. That is very difficult.”
Ortega plans to stay in sanctuary unless she gets some kind of opportunity to stay in the U.S. She made it clear that she is not going to leave.
According to the press release, and multiple releases sent out by Garcés earlier this year, Ortega’s family has been reaching out to Sen. Thom Tillis pleading that she will be able to stay with her family in the U.S.
“What we are asking the senator for is for the senator to present me to immigration officers so that immigration officials might hear my case and so that I might get an opportunity to just stay here with my family,” Ortega said.
Ortega said she came to the U.S. in 1992 fleeing the civil war in Guatemala.
“The guerrilla wanted me to join their forces, and they told me that I would be killed, that they would kill me if I didn’t join,” she said. “So that was the reason I had to leave my country and come to the U.S.”
Baena said she has volunteered with various immigrant groups for several years and Ortega’s situation is not just a problem for her and her family. She said lots of families are going to get put in this difficult situation. She said people are making the really difficult and inconvenient decision to seek sanctuary because they have no other choice.
Baena said it comes down to the question of “Do I leave and go back to a potentially dangerous situation or do I seek sanctuary, which is also pretty difficult and not a super convenient way to live?”
“And one thing that we do not really talk about very much is that it is our country’s policies that have created those situations of violence in Latin America,” Baena said. “I feel like we somehow do this magical thinking around immigration where we totally separate U.S. economic policies in Latin America from the fact that people then migrate here looking for refuge from violence which then creates the situations for families like Juana’s where they have to make really tough decisions.”
Rev. Randall Keeney is the minister that presides over St. Barnabas. He said Ortega is a “wonderful and gracious woman.”
“We pray every day that ICE will respond graciously to her and that she will be able to go home soon,” Keeney said.
As Christmas rolled by and as New Year’s approaches, Ortega has not lost her faith and remains optimistic. She’d like for people to know that she has a family that needs her and that she needs to be with them.
“I have faith that something good will happen soon,” Ortega said. “I have faith that something good will happen in this coming year. I have faith that any day now I’ll receive some good news.”
Ortega said she relies on her faith very much to get her through the days.
“I depend on my beliefs because it’s faith in God that gets us through. And it is God watching over us that gets us through anything.”
*Editor’s note: I sent an email to Sen. Thom Tillis via his website on Dec. 21 asking him what it would take for him to hear Ortega’s pleas to stay. However, as of Dec. 26, I have not received any email regarding an answer to that question (probably due to the Christmas holiday). I did receive confirmation that the comment had been submitted and “that we read each letter and e-mail and will do our utmost to get you a timely response addressing your thoughts and concerns.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.