Two years ago, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega took sanctuary with us after ICE ordered her to return to Guatemala. If it was just about her, she might have returned to take her chances with the violence that forced her to come to the United States during the 1990s. But it wasn’t.
When her parents paid for her travel to the United States, Ortega left her daughters with them. She applied for asylum and worked any job she could find. She saved enough money to bring her daughters here. She married her husband, Carlos, a U.S. citizen, and they had two more children and raised them to believe they could do and be anything, as long as they worked hard enough to earn it. Ultimately, Ortega’s two oldest daughters, who were protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, married and had children. Her younger daughter and son, who were born citizens, attended high school and college. Ortega’s greatest hopes had been realized. Her children and grandchildren live safely and have a chance at the American Dream.
Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 changed all of this. For a decade, Ortega had been reporting to an ICE office every year to have her asylum case reviewed and her work papers renewed. But at her regular meeting in April 2017, Ortega was told that an ICE policy — which had given her time to leave the country voluntarily — had changed, was quickly escorted to a room where a monitor was attached to her ankle. She was then given 30 days to leave the country.
Her family frantically searched for help. The American Friends Service Committee, or AFSC, a Quaker social justice nonprofit, approached us and asked us to take her in. St. Barnabas had spent years working with the immigrant community — among which are church members, including a Salvadoran family, whose father had been targeted for deportation. Still, receiving Ortega into sanctuary was a major step. We took that step deliberately, prayerfully and collectively. No other way was possible.
If you are considering taking a similar step, you will need to make similar considerations. And you should know what it takes to truly support someone who is living in sanctuary.
First, the people or organizations who offer sanctuary aren’t the only people who have to make momentous decisions. Organizations such as AFSC have to be sure that they can trust those making offers. Be prepared for background checks, and an informal, but no less real, “trial” or “probationary” period.
And once someone comes into sanctuary, caring for and protecting them is a total commitment. Knowing our job is to protect Ortega, St. Barnabas makes sure she is never left alone and that the doors are locked. When members of her family aren’t there, volunteers stay with her. We don’t want Ortega to have to answer, let alone open, the door. There is an ICE policy on “sensitive locations,” including houses of worship, hospitals, schools and protests. ICE is not supposed to violate those spaces, but we don’t rely on that rule.
Volunteers are trained how to respond if ICE does appear. First, an emergency mass text is sent out to a group of local responders, who then will notify a wider community. We believe we could have dozens of people on site within 15 minutes or so. Second, the volunteer asks the officers to wait until an authorized person comes to speak with them. Those authorized persons are prepared to be arrested before allowing access to Ortega.
Providing sanctuary also requires meeting a variety of other, more mundane, needs. People in sanctuary need to eat and help doing their laundry and shopping.
They need to be occupied: Even if you are not the person providing sanctuary, you might consider paying a cable or Internet bill, maintaining access to a working cellphone or computer, or simply providing the supplies someone needs to pursue a hobby or a profession. Ortega is a seamstress, and another sanctuary resident in North Carolina is a woodworker.
And the needs don’t end at the sanctuary door. Besides losing the daily presence of a loved one, the families of undocumented people experience other stressors, as well. First, there is that loss of presence. It is dramatic and often must be answered with specialized or professional support, though there are some immediate ways to fill the gap. Members of the congregation invite her children over to play or come to the church to play with them and their mother; show up at their sporting events and recitals; and help defer the cost of school.
Second, there is a loss of income and access to services. Few families can afford to lose half of their income, especially when they need legal representation to fight deportation proceedings. At St. Barnabas, we collect funds to replace some of the monthly financial losses that result from Ortega’s inability to work. We must be willing to search out medical professionals who do house calls. Getting access to some services may require more creativity. We have also developed a relationship with a sympathetic pharmacist who provides medication at a reduced rate.
Lastly, be prepared to be sucked into an overwhelming commitment of your soul. In fact, that may be the most significant gift you can offer. You may find yourself loving another person more than you imagined you would. You may find that the act of serving someone in sanctuary actually affects you as much as it affects them.