Documentary to Show the Life of Illegal Immigrant Family After Two Years in Sanctuary at North Carolina Church

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega in her sitting room at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro. On the left is a framed photo of her husband, Carlos. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega spends her days at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church sewing pillow covers, sculpting clay cups and bowls and cooking papusas and tamales.

But Ortega’s many homemaking skills belie the harsh reality of her life: She cannot go home.

Later this month, Ortega will mark her two-year anniversary in sanctuary. The 47-year-old Guatemalan native took refuge at St. Barnabas on May 31, 2017, after receiving an ankle bracelet and an order of deportation.

On Thursday (May 9), some PBS stations across the country will air a 25-minute documentary titled “Santuario” that tells Ortega’s story. The film looks at the plight of the Ortega family after Juana left  her husband, Carlos, four children and two grandchildren for sanctuary. The directors hope the film shines a light on noncriminal deportation cases like Ortega’s, which have multiplied in the wake of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

Ortega, who has no criminal record, has lived in the United States for 26 years, most of them in the North Carolina town of Asheboro, about 30 miles from Greensboro.

Before taking sanctuary, she worked as a seamstress for a furniture company in nearby High Point. Six years ago during a raid on her employer, she was arrested for entering the country illegally and released. It was then she first realized her asylum claim was denied. Each year since, she checked in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and received a one-year stay of deportation – until in 2017, when for no stated reason she was given 30 days to leave the country.

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega with her family at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, N.C. Photo courtesy of Santuario film

Faced with the choice of leaving her family and going back to Guatemala, or awaiting a knock at the door from an ICE officer, she sought church sanctuary.

Ortega’s family visits her at the church every weekend. Her two granddaughters often stay with her during school vacations. But for all practical purposes, her life is on hold.

“I came into the project excited about the idea of sanctuary as a form of protection for people facing deportation,” said Christine Delp, who co-directed the film with Pilar Timpane. “And I came through not really sure whether sanctuary is a good or bad thing. It’s like being in limbo. There’s an extreme emotional, financial, physical toll on families.”

The “Santuario” documentary
poster. Courtesy image

Hundreds of congregations across the country have pledged to support undocumented people at imminent risk of deportation. A far smaller number have actually housed them.

There are now 48 people taking sanctuary in houses of worship across the U.S., according to Church World Service, which maintains a database. Three have been in sanctuary since 2016, when the most recent sanctuary movement began, and 21 are coming up on their second anniversary.

Houses of worship are considered “sensitive locations,” meaning that federal immigration enforcement officers will avoid arresting, searching or interviewing people there under most circumstances.

The congregations that have people living in sanctuary have worked hard to advocate on their behalf.

So far, they’ve had limited success.

Some people in sanctuary have successfully won a stay of removal and have been reunited with their families. (One woman formerly in sanctuary at another Greensboro church was granted a green cardlast week, entitling her to permanent residency.)

But the majority are still waiting.

Timpane, co-director of the documentary about Ortega, which has shown at 11 film festivals and won the grand jury prize for short documentary at the New Orleans Film Festival, said she still struggles with people’s misunderstandings about the immigration system.

“It continues to surprise that we get questions like ‘What did she do? Why is (she) getting a deportation sentence?’ — rather than ‘What can be done to change the system?’” Timpane said.

Click here to read more.
Source: Religion News Service