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Facing deportation, grandmother takes sanctuary in Greensboro church

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro is offering sanctuary to a grandmother facing deportation.

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega of High Point is a mother of four and grandmother of two. She fled violence in Guatemala and moved to Asheboro in 1993. Her husband is a U.S. citizen.

The Greensboro church’s leaders voted unanimously to offer Ortega sanctuary.

From the WFDD story:

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ordered her to leave the country and will not grant her a stay of removal, which led to the church vote.

According to advocacy group American Friends Service Committee, this is the first time in several years that someone has been offered sanctuary in North Carolina.

“There’s absolutely no reason for this woman to be torn away from her family and her community. She’s a child of God and we will give her shelter until ICE drops her deportation order,” said St. Barnabas Rev. Randall Keeney in a statement.

Ortega has four children and two grandchildren, and her husband is a U.S. citizen.

After a welcoming ceremony at St. Barnabas, Ortega’s supporters will head to Senator Thom Tillis’ office in High Point to ask him to intervene.

The News & Record, Greensboro’s daily paper, is following the story:

“I hope not to be here long,” she said during an emotional press conference with family and supporters, which included the pastor at St. Barnabas and a throng of other faith leaders.

“I hope to return to my home soon. To be with my family,” Ortega, an Asheboro resident, said as her grandchildren held “Don’t deport my grandma” signs.

The church voted to offer her shelter instead of seeing her separated from her family.

Ortega, who is from Guatemala, is believed to be the first person in North Carolina to seek sanctuary against immigration officials at a church. It is unclear whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will enter the church and forcibly remove her.

Ortega has been here more than two decades. Her supporters blame an immigration policy that does not offer a path to citizenship for many immigrants.

“We are here to welcome Juana into our family,” St. Barnabas Pastor Randall Kenney said, from the church’s sanctuary. “Our hopes in doing this is we will be able to change the hearts and minds of people with influence.”

Triad City Beat is also covering Ortega’s story.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, maintains a “sensitive locations” policy, which provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including “places of worship,” “should generally be avoided.” An FAQ on the agency website goes on to say that enforcement actions at churches and other sensitive locations “require either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action.”

Lesvi Molina, one of Tobar Ortega’s four children, said the family has tried everything to stay the deportation, and taking sanctuary was the last option for her mother.

“She is the center of her family,” Molina said outside Sen. Tillis’ office. “We need her to stay with us. She still has a 15-year-old that hasn’t graduated from high school. She still has a 22-year-old, Jackie, who hasn’t graduated from college.” Molina added that her mother also has two grandchildren in North Carolina. She said her mother has been in the United States for 24 years.

The American Friends Service Committee Carolinas office, which is supporting Tobar Ortega, said she is the first person to take sanctuary in a North Carolina church in recent years. The vestry at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, pastored by the Rev. Randall Keeney, voted unanimously to shelter Tobar Ortega. According to the American Friends Service Committee, 1,700 people have signed a petition calling on ICE to allow her to stay in the United States.

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