Rosa Gutierrez Lopez had already purchased the plane ticket to return to the country she fears.
The Fredericksburg, Va., resident couldn’t imagine leaving her 11-year-old daughter and her sons, ages 9 and 6, the younger of whom has Down syndrome. But the life she envisioned for them was not in Central America, where special-needs resources are scarce and gangs maraud her old neighborhood.
So Gutierrez Lopez, 40, never boarded the airplane. Instead, she sought sanctuary at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda.
Advocates say she is the first undocumented immigrant to take refuge at a Washington-area house of worship since a regional network of congregations mobilized in recent years to resist tougher enforcement by President Trump.
“I am going to fight,” said Gutierrez Lopez, who came to the United States in 2005 and is staying in a small apartment on the Cedar Lane campus while her attorneys work to reopen her case. “I feel powerless. But I trust in God for a solution.”
Church leaders laid hands on her at a news conference Wednesday, pledging to protect her for as long as it takes and speaking against what they deem an amoral U.S. immigration system.
“Our faith informs us that this is the right thing to do,” said Omar Angel Perez, lead organizer for the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed the details of the case but declined to answer questions about why Gutierrez Lopez was being deported. The agency said in a statement that it “no longer exempts classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All individuals in violation of U.S. immigration laws may be subject to arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
The sanctuary movement dates back decades and is based on the understanding that federal officials will avoid arresting people in “sensitive locations,” such as churches, unless there is a public-safety threat. The effort expanded in the waning years of the Obama administration as thousands of largely Central American immigrants were deported after having crossed the border illegally.
After Trump was elected, promising to deport as many as possible of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, the effort grew further. Today, advocates say, more than 50 houses of worship across the country are harboring immigrants who face imminent arrest and deportation if they step outside the confines of their refuge. A Virginia woman moved into a Richmond church this summer after she was ordered back to Honduras, where she had been abused by a partner. Two other immigrants are staying at churches in Charlottesville.
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, Cedar Lane’s senior minister, said the Bethesda congregation had long considered itself a sanctuary but made the decision to offer physical shelter last year. Since Gutierrez Lopez moved in Monday, church volunteers have deployed to supply her with food, toiletries, linens and other basics — and to patrol campus exits.
“This is the way we live into our values and convictions,” Janamanchi said. “We are engaging in faithful resistance to unjust laws and inhumane practices.
The church is buying Gutierrez Lopez much-needed time, said her attorney, Anibal Romero, who also represents an undocumented woman who works for Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., and was the subject of a recent New York Times article.
Gutierrez Lopez was detained while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005 with her then-boyfriend and told to appear in immigration court in Texas. But in the process of moving to the East Coast, she didn’t realize she had to confirm the date of the hearing. When she didn’t show up, a deportation order was issued — a story common to many undocumented migrants.
Gutierrez Lopez moved to Fredericksburg and began working at a restaurant. After her daughter was born, she separated from her then-boyfriend. She later gave birth to two sons but is estranged from their fathers.
When she learned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were looking for her in 2014, Gutierrez Lopez said, she found a lawyer, contacted the agency and has since appeared for regular check-ins.
Earlier this year, agents placed a monitoring bracelet on her. In October, ICE said in the statement, they told her she must leave the country by Dec. 10.
Romero filed a motion to stay her removal months ago. It is pending in immigration court in Harlingen, Tex. He said that Gutierrez Lopez has a relative who was killed in El Salvador and that she fears she could be targeted if she returns — concerns that could allow her to seek asylum in the backlogged U.S. system.
“We believe we have a good case, but we are in limbo,” Romero said. “She can’t fight her case in El Salvador, and we don’t control what happens in the courts here.”
Gutierrez Lopez said she didn’t sleep in the days leading up to her Monday flight. She tried to hide her anxiety but her children knew something was wrong. Then a friend told her about sanctuary churches. She called Perez, the organizer for the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network. By Sunday, the group had found a willing partner in Cedar Lane Unitarian.
“We don’t see why she is a priority for deportation,” said Richard Morales, director of Faith In Action’s national immigration campaign, La Red, which coordinates sanctuary activity across the country. “There is no reason to separate this woman from her children.”
On Monday, Gutierrez Lopez left her children with the family of the pastor of the church she attends in Fredericksburg. She grabbed clothes and her Bible, and was driven to Bethesda.
Her children will visit on weekends but stay in Fredericksburg during the week so they can attend school and the younger son can make his therapy appointments.
Gutierrez Lopez plans to work for her keep by working and cleaning in the church. She also plans to make everyone pupusas, the traditional Salvadoran stuffed tortillas.
“I don’t know how long I will be here,” she said. “But I feel protected here.”