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BETHESDA, MARYLAND - Rosa Gutierrez Lopez was frightened and desperate when immigration authorities told her to buy a plane ticket because she had to leave the U.S. by last December 10. The 40-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador had been living in the United States since 2005, working in restaurants and other jobs in northern Virginia. 

With three American-born children, she had been granted deferred action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after being picked up in 2014 for being in the country illegally. Subsequently, she checked in with ICE each year and her application for deferred action was renewed - in large part, her lawyer says, because her young children are American citizens and one of them suffers from Down Syndrome. In 2017, however, the first year of the Trump administration, Rosa noticed a difference when she reported to ICE for her annual check-in.

“I was told to report to a different location and the official there began asking me all sorts of questions, questions they had never asked me before,” she recalled to VOA, speaking in Spanish. In the end, ICE did not renew her deferred action application, ordered her to leave the country, and attached a monitoring device on her ankle to keep track of her movements. She had her plane ticket in hand when she learned about another possibility. 

“I was at my children’s school, saying goodbye to everyone and then a friend there told me about sanctuary churches…and I was able to come here.”

“Here” is the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, where Gutierrez Lopez has been living on church grounds since mid-December. She is the first publicly known case in the Washington, D.C. area of someone seeking refuge at a church since congregations across the nation mobilized in recent years to resist the Trump administration’s stricter immigration enforcement policies. While she lives in sanctuary, her lawyers are filing a motion to petition for asylum because of widespread gang violence in El Salvador. Three of her close relatives have been murdered by gangs in recent years, and Gutierrez Lopez fears she would be targeted as well if she is deported.

“I believe her, and her children, her American children, would be in grave danger,” said Hector Perez Casillas, the immigration lawyer who is handling her case. “They would be immediately targeted because they know that: A. she’s been here in the United States for so long, B. she has American children and C. one of them is ill, making her an extra vulnerable target.”

Church Sanctuary Cases Rising

Gutierrez Lopez is one of 50 undocumented immigrants publicly known to have sought refuge in 39 churches across the country, according to Church World Service. While the total number of people now in sanctuary is unknown, in large part because those involved want to keep the cases private, the CWS notes there has been an increase since the Trump administration was inaugurated when the number of public cases was 37. More significantly has been the jump in the number of congregations involved in offering sanctuary, from 400 at the start of 2017 to more than 1100 today. Noel Andersen, CWS’ national grassroots organizer, says the rise is a response to the Trump administration’s policy in which even undocumented immigrants without criminal records are arrested and deported. 

1100 congregations in over 30 states have offered
1100 congregations in over 30 states have offered to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants seeking to avoid deportation.

?“That’s why these congregations feel called in this moment,” Andersen told VOA. “They see that people are being de-humanized and they are responding to their faith call which is to say that we are to treat all people as children of God.” 

While the sanctuary church movement has expanded these past two years to levels unseen since the 1980s when churches were sheltering Central American refugees fleeing wars and massacres in the region, the places of worship offering refuge are just a fraction of the 350,000 religious congregations estimated to exist in the U.S. by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Immigration hardliners play down the impact of the of movement, noting the number of cases are insignificant in light of the “700,000 people who have been ordered deported by an immigration judge,” says Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. But what concerns Camarota is that the urge to make exceptions leads to what he considers a bankrupt immigration policy. "It's understandable why in any individual case, you might say, ‘Well, couldn't we make an exception for this nice guy, this nice lady.' And I think everyone feels a lot of sympathy for that. But when you do that, you end up with the scale of illegal immigration that we now have."

Yet these cases of undocumented immigrants seeking sanctuary do generate widespread publicity – and support. In Gutierrez Lopez’ case, the articles and TV reports since she sought refuge in December have generated an overwhelming response, according to Reverend Abhi Janamanchi, the senior minister at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church.

“So far we’ve received lots of support, and offers of support even from total strangers,” Reverend Janamanchi told VOA. “People have come forward to provide the resources that are needed to be a sanctuary community.”

It’s a major commitment, involving scores of volunteers to provide for the needs of someone living in sanctuary. At the Cedar Lane Church, Rev. Janamanchi said they have 150 volunteers providing services ranging from meals, translation and interpreting, companionship and security. Because Gutierrez Lopez cannot leave church grounds without risking detention, her three children who live in northern Virginia visit her on weekends. When she thinks about how her situation is affecting her family, tears fill her eyes.

Rosa Gutierrez Lopez, mother of three American-bor
Rosa Gutierrez Lopez, mother of three American-born children, sought sanctuary at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in December to avoid deportation.

?“My boy with Down Syndrome doesn’t know that I’m in this situation. And my boy who is 9, he knows I’m in this place but he doesn’t understand exactly why,” she said, her voice choking with emotion. “My daughter who is 11 she does know. She tells me: ‘Mommy, I miss you, I want you to be in our home.’ But I tell her I can’t because if I leave the church, immigration will grab me and deport me.” 

Her life at the Cedar Lane Church is likely to continue for some time and she has been assured by Rev. Janamanchi that his congregation is committed to her "for as long as it takes." An average stay in sanctuary is now about two years before a case resolved, says CWS, compared to six to 12 months just a few years ago. However, Gutierrez Lopez’ lawyer is optimistic her case will eventually result in her being granted asylum. 

“It’s easy to talk about tough immigration, and security for our nation but when you see people that it affects I think that changes the view of most, or any reasonable person,” notes Perez Casillas. “This mother of three children, who were born here and one who is suffering from Down Syndrome and needs the care you can only get here, and also with the danger she faces if she’s removed from this country, I think any reasonable person who sees that will say: ‘that doesn’t seem right to me.’”