Juana Luz Tobar Ortega

‘Santuario’ Film Documents A Life In Limbo

Apr 4, 2019
Pilar Timpane

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega took sanctuary in a Greensboro church two years ago to avoid deportation back to Guatemala. She and her family hoped taking refuge there would be a short-term step. A documentary film captured her early weeks spent living in the church and stayed with her as the weeks turned to months. The film shows Juana as she tries to keep busy and stay positive, all the while showing the pain and sadness she and her family feel at living apart. 

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega stands outside St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, where she is living in sanctuary.
Leoneda Inge / WUNC

Nearly 100 documentary films from around the world will be shown this week and weekend in downtown Durham. It’s the 22nd annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, with this edition highlighting the stories of laid off autoworkers, the last male northern white rhino and musical greats like Miles Davis. But there are a small group of documentaries I have especially been waiting for.

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega stands outside St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, where she is living in sanctuary.
Leoneda Inge / WUNC

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.”

Betsy Blake / American Friends Service Committee

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega is a mother of four and grandmother of two who has lived in Asheboro, North Carolina for more than 20 years. Tobar Ortega works, pays taxes, and is active in her local church. She is also undocumented. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered Tobar Ortega to return to her native Guatemala by the end of May 2017. Instead, Tobar Ortega made the radical decision to take refuge at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, where the vestry voted to shelter her and protect her from deportation.