Federal Court Protects Woman Who Took Sanctuary in a Church From Deportation

Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz, right, prepares pupusas for church friends, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, after receiving news that a federal court has protected her from deportation. She has been living at Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for 22 months. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (RNS) — Rosa del Carmen Ortez Cruz admits there were days she wanted to stay in bed and hide under the covers.

For nearly two years the Honduran native took sanctuary from deportation at Church of Reconciliation, not knowing if she would ever be able to emerge from her confinement.

This week, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled Wednesday (Feb. 26) that immigration authorities may not deport her. The unanimous ruling means Ortez Cruz will be entitled to stay and work in the United States for the foreseeable future.

Soon, the 38-year-old mother of four will reunite with her four children and get on with her life.

“I feel like there’s been a weight lifted from on top of me,” Ortez Cruz told Religion News Service. “I still have some fear, but I feel more secure. Now I know if they come after me they’d have to release me.”

Rosa del Carmen Ortez Cruz at the door to the kitchen
at the church where she took sanctuary from deportation
in North Carolina, Feb. 27, 2020. RNS photo by Yonat

Ortez Cruz fled Honduras for the United States in 2002, after her domestic partner, the father of her first child, stabbed her multiple times in the stomach. The Church of Reconciliation and the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship — both meet in the same building — offered her refuge from immediate deportation 22 months ago.

Ortez Cruz did not qualify for asylum because she waited too long after crossing the U.S. border to file a claim. But she argued she cannot return to Honduras, since she fears her ex-partner may kill her. The Fourth Circuit agreed, finding that the Board of Immigration Appeal erred by not providing any evidence that it would be safe for her to return to Honduras.

“We’re thrilled the court granted her withholding of removal,” said Ann Marie Dooley, a lawyer with McKinney Immigration Law, which has represented Ortez Cruz since 2013.

“Once Rosa showed she suffered persecution the burden of proof shifted to the government,” Dooley said. “They didn’t present any evidence that Rosa would no longer be in danger if she went back. The higher court said that was improper.”

Nationwide, there are 47 undocumented immigrants who have publicly announced they are taking refuge in U.S. religious congregations, according to Church World Service, which maintains a database. That includes Ortez Cruz, who will remain at the church for the next few weeks until her lawyer receives confirmation from the immigration court that they have received the Fourth Circuit’s ruling and will no longer pursue deportation.

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

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Source: Religion News Service