A Honduran immigrant afraid for her life sought sanctuary this past weekend in a local church and helped launch a movement Tuesday aimed at helping others.
The Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill and the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, who share the North Elliott Road church campus, have partnered to offer Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz sanctuary from deportation.
Sanctuary provides someone with a place to sleep, eat and bathe where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can't reach them. Church of Reconciliation members studied the issue for a year before deciding to be a sanctuary church, said its pastor, the Rev. Mark Davidson. They turned an office into a living spaces and a closet into a shower in anticipation of helping someone, he said.
Immigrants in the community are being watched, detained and deported, Davidson told several dozen activists and supporters at Tuesday's news conference. Giving Ortez-Cruz sanctuary is "an act of conscience and resistance" aligned with biblical principles, he said.
"This is a racist policy, and it flies in the face of the finest values of our nation," Davidson said. "It is having devastating impacts on human lives. This policy separates and shatters families. It creates needless sorrow and insecurity. It exposes vulnerable people to great danger. It creates a climate of fear and anxiety among our Latino neighbors."
Tuesday's news conference came one week after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids were first reported in Orange County. ICE agents arrested at least 25 immigrants across the Triangle last week who were living in the country illegally.
Those people were not able to seek sanctuary in a church, said Laura Garduno-Garcia, with the Greensboro-based American Friends Service Committee. ICE is a "rogue agency that acts unchecked," she said, and urged more people to oppose its tactics, support activists who are being targeted, and alert residents to ICE agents and interrupt their work in the community.
"We need to embody what sanctuary looks like, not just by taking record numbers of people like Rosa into churches, but pushing sanctuary outside of the church walls," Garduno-Garcia said.
Ortez-Cruz, 37, fled Honduras in 2002 after a former domestic partner stabbed her multiple times when she was 19. Her abdomen was reconstructed, she said, and she spent over a month recovering in the hospital.
She moved to Greensboro 11 years ago, after living in Virginia and Washington, D.C. She worked in a water filter factory and on a taco truck to support her four children — ages 7, 9, 13 and 19, she said. Three of them are U.S. citizens.
“I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be far from my children.” Ortez-Cruz said. “But I have no choice, because going back to Honduras is not an option. If I go there, it could mean the end of my life. He said ‘If you won’t be with me, you won’t be with anyone’.”
Immigration courts have recognized Ortez-Cruz fled Honduras to save her life, officials said, but they denied her case and ordered her to leave the country. Her appeal is pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but those cases can be extremely difficult to win, said her attorney Ann Marie Dooley, with McKinney Perry Immigration Law in Greensboro, .
"I'm a bit sad," Ortez-Cruz said through an interpreter Tuesday, "but God helps me get the strength to continue to move forward."
Honduras is one of the world's most dangerous countries with widespread rape and domestic violence against women. While the Honduran government and nonprofit groups have laws and programs to help, the U.S. Department of Justice reports the quality of financial resources and programs is uneven.
As a result, many Honduran women continue to face discrimination and violence, United Nations officials reported in 2015. Domestic violence and violent deaths among women and girls grew steadily from 2005 to 2014, the report noted.
Ortez-Cruz's supporters are asking ICE to let her to stay in the United States and for Congress to pressure ICE to keep her safe.
“We’re calling for action from our elected officials, but we also know we cannot sit by and wait for politicians to act while unjust immigration policies tear apart our communities,” said Lori Fernald Khamala, director of the Greensboro-based American Friends Service Committee’s NC Immigrant Rights Program.
“That’s why we are also calling on churches and other places of worship throughout the state to join us in pledging to offer sanctuary to all who need it,” she said.
Ortez-Cruz came to Chapel Hill, because churches in Greensboro were already committed to housing others, Davidson said.
Supporters and religious leaders encircled Ortez-Cruz in prayer Tuesday before encouraging others to join the North Carolina Sanctuary Coalition effort, a movement also supported by the N.C. Council of Churches and Church World Service.
In the Christian faith, "the notion of immigration is clearly framed as a call to hospitality," said Jennifer Copeland, with the N.C. Council of Churches. "When the forces of the world conspire to harm the ones to whom we are called to show hospitality, then we are expected to protect them — that's in the Bible."
Ortez-Cruz is the sixth person in North Carolina to seek sanctuary. The state has the most active congregational sanctuary cases in the nation, officials said. Others who have sought sanctuary include Eliseo Jimenez, who arrived in October at Umstead Park United Church of Christ In Raleigh. In Durham, Samuel Oliver-Bruno moved into CityWell United Methodist Church in December, and Jose Chicas moved into the School for Conversion in July.
Several members of the Church of Reconciliation have supported Chicas by visiting with him and providing meals, Davidson said. Over 100 volunteers from more than 10 Chapel Hill churches are providing 24-hour support for Ortez-Cruz, he said.
"It's not just our little congregation, and we've got workshops and training in place that everyone has been through," he said.
The N.C. Sanctuary Coalition can be a statewide network of churches and organizations providing immigrants with emotional support and safe spaces, officials said. It's also about organizing for political change, Davidson and others said.
"Our faith is nothing if we do not actively practice solidarity with those who are being denied justice," said Xaris A. Martínez, a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. "We commit to accompany Rosa and hope that other congregations in our state and throughout the nation will consider opening their doors and hearts to those most at risk in their communities."
A petition asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan to cancel his deportation order for Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz can be found at tiny.cc/rosashouldstay. The Rev. Mark Davidson also encouraged people to contact the Church of Reconciliation for more information about how to help. The church can be reached at 919-929-2127 or firstname.lastname@example.org.