Since Donald Trump took office, the number of non-criminal undocumented immigrants detained and arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has spiked. That has pushed some to seek sanctuary in churches, where ICE says its policy is to avoid enforcement in so-called “sensitive locations.”
On the eve of Mother’s Day, two women are confined to the borders of North Carolina churches that have taken them in. One of the women is Juana Luz Tobar Ortega.
"This is the bathroom. It’s two bathrooms. This is my shower," said Ortega, 46, on a recent tour of her new space at St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church in Greensboro. “And this is my kitchen. I [cook] here...Got food for my family and hopefully the people here. I like cooking.”
Ortega, originally from Guatemala, has lived in a renovated office at St. Barnabas for one year. One wall is filled with pictures of her children and grandchildren. There’s a bed, a sofa, a large treadmill for exercising, and two sewing machines. She makes pillows and alters clothes to keep busy.
When the weather is nice, Ortega says she likes to walk in St. Barnabas’ beautiful garden, but she does not walk too far.
She says she hasn't left the church in the last year – not even for a doctor's appointment.
And just to be safe, Ortega said she does not even walk to the edge of the church’s driveway, fearing someone from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, might arrest her.
Ortega has lived in Asheboro for half her life, working in the textile industry. She has no criminal record. She fled Guatemala in 1993, but returned to care for a sick child. Her troubles began after re-entering the United States. A deportation order was issued.
About 60 miles east of St. Barnabas is The Church of Reconciliation and Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. That’s where Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz has been in sanctuary for the last month.
On the woodsy grounds, there is also a day care center. Ortez-Cruz said the sound of children playing nearby makes her sad.
"When I see someone come to bring their kids here, I just think 'Wow, how lovely it is to be able to bring your kids here',” she said.
Ortez-Cruz, a native of Honduras, has four children, including a 19-year-old who is in college, and three younger children who are now with their father’s family in Greensboro. The youngest is 7. Ortez-Cruz was in tears on a recent visit.
Ortez-Cruz has many scars that show deep stab wounds to her back, arm and stomach. She fears for her life if she returns to Honduras. Her application for asylum was denied. So during the appeals process, she lives in a church in Chapel Hill, with the help of several volunteers.
“You feel really supported and a lot of people who really appreciate you," she said. "But it’s not easy to be here in this place.”
Lori Fernald Khamala heads the North Carolina Immigrant Rights Program at the American Friends Service Committee. And she coordinates the national “Sanctuary Everywhere” initiative. Khamala said she worries ICE is holding too many communities hostage and tearing apart families.
"Juana and Rosa and all of the mothers and grandmothers in sanctuary across the country deserve to be with their families on Mother’s Day and every day," Khamala said.
Khamala said her group's records show North Carolina has the most sanctuary cases in the country, with six active cases, and growing. There are 36 cases nationwide.