Living in sanctuary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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Rosa Ortez Cruz has been living in a sanctuary in Chapel Hill for eleven months, to avoid deportation while appealing her asylum claim in a federal court. Between hope and despair, her life now unfolds in a restricted perimeter, part of a growing church sanctuary movement.

By Sarah R. Champagne

“I’ll be here anyway, just come,” she said. Just in case I could be confused. Since April 10th, 2018, this mother of four children has not gone out much outside, much less ventured outside of the Church of Reconciliation’s property.

At the end of March 2018, her life changed in a flash after being placed in deportation proceedings. She received the order on the 23rd. Two weeks later, ICE raids resulted in 25 to 40 arrests in North Carolina, which scared her further. “I am really afraid to go back to Honduras, so I wanted to do everything I could to stay.”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) generally do not conduct enforcement operations in “sensitive locations,” such as schools, hospitals and churches. Rosa insists she is not hiding, just waiting for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to hear her arguments.

Before taking sanctuary, Rosa saw some of her friends and coworker being deported. ICE rather calls these arrests “targeted enforcement operation.” Since she has decided to live in the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, ICE has deported more than 95,000 immigrants from the interior of the country (not at the border), according to its annual report. Among all the people deported, either from the interior or at the border, 57% were convicted criminals, writes ICE. The rest, 43%, were not criminals, but most often targeted because of immigration violations.

ICE removed more than 95,000 aliens from the interior of the country

ICE by the numbers 2018
  Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who had been in sanctuary in Durham for almost a year, was deported on November 30th 2018. The City Well United Methodist Church appears here in red to indicate this change.

Other people are targeted even though they comply with mandatory check-ins, sometimes waiting for their case to be heard, says Church World Service (CWS). The organization is supporting the movement of churches engaged in sanctuary, says says Jennie Bell, community organizer for CWS.

As of December 2018, there were 48 people in sanctuary across the U.S., in a network formed by more than 1,100 places of worship that contribute financially or with volunteering, she adds. For the Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor for the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, it’s “an act of conscience and resistance aligned with biblical principles.” Rosa Ortez Cruz keeps in touch with other people in sanctuaries in North Carolina and elsewhere through a weekly online call, and talks daily to her children, who all live in Greensboro.

Rosa Ortez Cruz crossed the border in 2002 to flee domestic violence after her ex-partner stabbed her in the stomach. She was 20 years old. Now 37, Rosa says she had no idea of her options: “I came here like everybody else, with other people, riding trains or buses. But I just never knew I had the option to ask for asylum.”

Only about 20% of all Honduran asylum demands get accepted. Honduras has no declared armed conflict but consistently shows violent death rates as high as war-torn countries. What difference does it make? The asylum acceptance rate is much higher for countries officially at war like Afghanistan and Iraq. Honduras is also an infamous champion of crime against women, with one woman being murdered every 16 hours in 2016.

Migrants from Honduras made headlines in October 2018 when president Trump virulently responded to the upcoming of a group. He sent 5,000 troops to the Southern border, accusing terrorists to hide in their ranks. “I think that everything that Trump does will just make more money for criminal gangs because they will still smuggle people. So they will only ask for more money to immigrants,” says Ortez Cruz. 

Emotional roller coaster
Before taking sanctuary, Rosa had two jobs to make both ends meet, both paid at the minimum wage. “It’s not easy to find a job, but I had to quit both of them because the immigration [services] knew where I worked.”

She did not want to put other workers at risk by her presence. “I’ve seen it before and I began to think about everybody they could catch just because they were looking for me.”

One of the only American she interacted frequently with is a former supervisor. “He would humiliate me for not speaking English. But then he realized that only Hispanics could bear this job.” Trying to make something positive out of her situation, Rosa Ortez Cruz says it has been an occasion to meet and get to know more Americans.

Every two weeks, she cooks pupusas, a central American delicacy, after the Sunday worship. Between the grill and the corn-flour dough, she speaks with the church volunteers, sweat beading on her forehead.

Rosa Ortez Cruz tries to keep herself busy by making jewelry. 

Grateful for the support she is receiving from the church community she hesitates before calling it a “confinement,” but she then utters the word. “At the beginning, it was even harder, but I guess either I’m stronger, either you can adapt to anything. The hardest is when my children visit me and ask when I’ll be back.”

The idea behind a 360° video
Rosa Ortez Cruz finds herself in a long in-between, her status is in limbo. The sanctuary, her physical space, compares to a borderland, an area between two things or two countries, which contains features from both. The church is on the American territory, yet retrieved from it. Rosa is free to live there, yet her freedom of movement is also voluntarily restricted. She is symbolically at the periphery of the country, but inside it at the same time. Her only safe space has pushed her at the fringe of her own life. She lives in a confined borderland.