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Guatemalan Grandmother Seeks Sanctuary At Greensboro Church

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sanctuary Cities, Deportation
Leoneda Inge
Juana Luz Tobar Ortega addresses crowd at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro on May 31, 2017. Ortega has sought sanctuary from deportation.

A church community in Greensboro has come together to provide sanctuary protection for a woman who was scheduled for deportation this week. Instead of boarding a plane for Guatemala, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega sought the help of religious groups and found St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro.

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church is a small brick structure, tucked away off a busy intersection by an attractive lawn and lots of trees.  It reminds one of a safe place, a place of refuge, a sanctuary.

Rev. Randall Keeney opened the doors of the church for a news conference this week, to pray for Ortega and her family.

“As we begin this, I want to invite members of our congregation to open their prayer books," said Keeney, as the many in the church laughed. "We’re Episcopalians and we don’t know how to pray without our prayer books."

Ortega and members of her family joined in.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" asked Keeney.

"I will with God’s help,” the church answered.

Ortega, 45, has lived in Asheboro for more than half her life, has a steady work history in textiles and no criminal record.

“I am a mother of four children, and wife of Carlos Valenzuela. I wanted to thank the members of this church, the pastors, for their support and for their help," said Ortega, reading from a prepared statement.

Ortega fled violence in Guatemala in 1993, but returned to care for a critically-ill child a few years later.  Her troubles with immigration officials began, when she re-entered the United States.

Ortega, wearing a black ankle monitor placed on her by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, kept her emotions in check during most of the news conference. But tears fell as Lesvi Molina addressed the audience. She’s Ortega’s oldest daughter, the child who was sick. Molina made a tearful plea to U.S. Senator Thom Tillis.

“This is why today we stand by her to ask Thom Tillis to submit a stay of removal for Juana Luz Tobar Ortega. We ask him to help us keep our family here, where she belongs," said Molina in tears.

After the prayers and pleas, several people drove the 13 miles from St. Barnabas to Senator Tillis’ district office in High Point. Ortega’s family handed an aide a template of a letter they hope Tillis will send the Department of Homeland Security asking for a stay of removal. Ortega’s husband is already a naturalized U.S. citizen, and so are her two youngest children.

Lori Fernald Khamala is the director of the Immigrant Rights Program for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.

“Thank you so much Juana, we admire your courage and we stand with you," said Khamala.

American Friends helped Ortega find sanctuary at St. Barnabas. Khamala said the organization is optimistic about her case.

“Over the last three years, the sanctuary movement has had 24 public cases, eight of which are pending, Juana is the ninth, and 15 have received relief from deportations," said Khamala.

Ortega’s sanctuary strategy is believed to be the first in North Carolina. ICE officials would not comment directly on her case.

Tillis’ office released a statement that said his office had previously made an inquiry on Ortega’s behalf, but that the matter is now “out of our jurisdiction.”

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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