Living in sanctuary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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Rosa Ortez Cruz has been living in sanctuary in Chapel Hill for eight months, to avoid deportation while appealing her asylum claim. 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 it was not obvious. It was obvious, but not normal, and certainly not desirable.  Since April 10th, 2018, this mother of four children has not gone out much outside, much less outside of the Church of reconciliation’s property. 

At the end of March 2018, her life changed in a flash. She received a deportation order on the 23rd. Two weeks later, ICE raids resulted in 25 to 40 arrests in North Carolina, according to several news articles. She entered the church protection at the right time. “I am really afraid to go back, so I wanted to do everything I could.”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can’t reach her in this place where she has taken sanctuary. Rosa is not hiding; just waiting for the court to reexamine her asylum claim. 

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 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.

For their part, ICE rather calls these arrests “targeted enforcement operation.” In a press release in February 2017, almost exactly a year before Rosa Ortez Cruz took sanctuary, ICE announced that 84 people were arrested in North Carolina during one weekend.  Nationally, there has been a 37% increase in the number of deportations from 2016 to 2017, according to ICE annual report. 

ICE removed more than 81,000 aliens from the interior of the country

ICE by the numbers 2017
  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.

Some of these immigrants are convicted criminals – like ICE prides itself – but others, like Rosa Ortez Cruz have no criminal records. They are targeted even when they comply with mandatory check-ins, sometimes waiting for their case to be heard, says Church World Service (CWS). This organization has helped the response to these policies by supporting an emerging movement of churches, says Jennie Bell, community organizer for CWS.

There are now 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 sanctuary through a weekly online call, and talks daily to her children, who live in Greensboro. The 37-years-old woman claims she was violently assaulted by her former partner in Honduras. “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. And now the judge reproaches that I didn’t ask it straight away when I arrived.”

Honduras has no declared armed conflict but seems to be at war with itself, consistently showing violent death rates as high as war-torn countries. What difference does it make? The asylum acceptance rate is much higher for countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, Honduras ranks among the highest denial rates. This Central American country is also an infamous champion of crime against women, with one woman being murdered every 16 hours in 2016.

Migrants from Honduras also made headlines in October when president Trump virulently respond to the upcoming of a group. He sent 5,000 troops to the southern American border, falsely 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,” thinks Ortez Cruz. 

Emotional roller coaster
She knows how to fend for herself. She 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 was careful not to put undocumented workers at risk after hearing stories about ICE raids in plants or other workplaces. “I’ve seen it before and I began to think about everybody they could catch just because they were looking for me.”

Trying to make something positive out of her situation, Rosa Ortez Cruz says it has been an occasion to meet more American people. 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.”

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.

Bead by bead, time passes. 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.” She verbalizes her feelings: “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.”