A Salvadoran Woman Took Refuge In A Maryland Church. She Still Can't Leave

Sep 1, 2019
Originally published on September 1, 2019 2:15 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Rosa Gutierrez Lopez is still at the church on Cedar Lane. Eight months ago, we introduced you to her. She had fled violence in El Salvador 14 years ago and built a life undocumented in Virginia. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement found her, she got deferred action so she could stay and work. But when they refused to renew her status, she was ordered out of the U.S. by December 10, 2018. So that month, Gutierrez Lopez sought sanctuary on the 7-acre campus of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md. And she's been there ever since.

ROSA GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: In January, living apart from her three children and wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet on her ankle, she was despondent, praying to God she'd be together with her children soon.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: Today...

Hi, Rosa.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: Hi. How are you?

FADEL: How are you?

...Gutierrez Lopez has settled into a routine of sorts at the church she now calls home.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She takes English classes. She's learning yoga and meditation. Yoga's hard, she says, but she likes it.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She also volunteers in the church kitchen chopping vegetables for local soup kitchens and food pantries. She's good at that. She used to be a cook at an Italian restaurant in Fredericksburg, Va. And she's no longer separated from her children.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: They're here with me now, she says. They're going to stay.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: My daughter have 12. Pablo (ph) have 9. And John (ph) is my youngest son, have 7.

FADEL: As we speak, her kids are out with volunteers from the church buying clothes for the first week of school. Rosa can't do back-to-school shopping with them.

So is it hard that you can't see them, take them to school, see them go off?

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She says she can't walk to the bus stop with the oldest two. It's off church property. And that's hard. But her youngest will get picked up on church grounds. And so at least she can be with him. Now, nine months is a long time. And the church has had to put a lot of resources into making sure the family is not only safe, church leaders say, but comfortable.

ABHI JANAMANCHI: We have shifts, people putting in four-hour shifts or more during the day and at night.

FADEL: Reverend Abhi Janamanchi is the senior minister at Cedar Lane.

JANAMANCHI: We have people engaged in buying groceries, you know? And this is every day. You know, it's not like you do it once, and then you're done.

FADEL: He says it's a long-term commitment for volunteers.

JANAMANCHI: Some of them have been doing it continually since December. It is a wonderful gift. It also takes something out of people.

FADEL: So how long can it go on, though? Does it go on indefinitely? I mean, this is, like you said, an investment. So how much can you ask of people?

JANAMANCHI: We made this commitment as something that we would do for as long as it takes. We didn't say we would only be a sanctuary for three months, and then we're done. So the congregation went through a rather intense process of discernment that led them to make that decision together. But that's part of what I see to be the spiritual practice and discipline of sanctuary. It is sharing the comfort we find in our spiritual home with others.

FADEL: The church has tried to defer her removal order three different times.

JANAMANCHI: Every time we have tried to submit her application, ICE has refused to accept it, insisting that Dona Rosa should submit that in person.

FADEL: And why haven't - hasn't she gone in person?

JANAMANCHI: The track record of ICE when people in similar situations, when they have tried to do that, has not been conducive for the person trying to - and, basically, that they were detained and then deported - the most recent case being in late November 2018 in North Carolina when a man who was in sanctuary at a church was misled to come to an ICE office, thinking that it was going to be a routine appointment where he would be offered the deferral and instead was immediately arrested. And there was actually a witness by the church members who were there for hours in trying to prevent ICE from doing it. But in the end, he was detained and then deported to Mexico.

FADEL: Deferring the removal order would allow her to leave the church campus and stay in the U.S. while she tries to get the immigration court to hear her asylum case again. And there's new evidence that might bolster her case. Her brother and his family were granted asylum. Gutierrez Lopez's lawyer filed a new motion arguing she's subject to the same threats of violence. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has appointed six new judges to the Immigration Appeals Court, all with extremely high rates of denying asylum cases. So there's nothing Rosa can do but wait on Cedar Lane.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She goes on walks. But when she nears the exit of the parking lot that leads to the street, she turns.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: "I could walk all the way the edge," she says. "But I don't want to risk it and get grabbed."

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She's only partially joking. She says she hasn't seen ICE patrolling the neighborhood. All the same, there's a volunteer shadowing her just to be sure. Now, that offhand comment - it's not one she would have made when I visited Rosa Gutierrez Lopez in January. She's brighter now, more confident even as her case languishes. She's even preparing to lead a bilingual service two weeks from today at the church. She's thinking about her sermon.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She says she'll pray for all our countries because there is so much violence. She'll thank God for life. And she'll pray for those arrested in a recent ICE raid in Mississippi and all the children still in detention.

GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: And she'll ask God to open the president's heart a little.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.