Living in limbo

Living in limbo

As the U.S. government aggressively pursues undocumented immigrants, life goes on for months or even years as those in sanctuary appeal their cases.

Arthur Hirsch
Rosa Gutierrez Lopez cooks for her children in the kitchen of Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland.

Rosa Gutierrez Lopez cooks for her children in the kitchen of Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland. (© 2019 Shuran Huang)

© 2019 Shuran Huang


Rosa Gutierrez Lopez has found safety on seven acres surrounded by trees in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Confined to the grounds of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, for nearly a year, she’s been waiting to know if she’ll have a future in the United States with her children, who are citizens, or be deported to El Salvador, which she fled in fear fourteen years ago.

“It’s difficult but I’m taking it calmly,” Lopez, 41, a single mother of three, said through an interpreter. “I’m hoping a judge will decide to let me stay here and take care of my children.”

The erstwhile restaurant cook has lived in hopeful limbo since she arrived at Cedar Lane on December 10, 2018, the date on the one-way ticket back to El Salvador that she bought for $450 on orders from U.S. immigration authorities. Instead of heading to Dulles Airport from Fredericksburg, Virginia, that day, she was picked up and driven more than two hours north into sanctuary by a team dispatched by Cedar Lane.

“Our faith calls us to seek justice, equity, and compassion in all human relations,” said the Rev. Katie Romano Griffin, Cedar Lane’s associate minister.

“Our current immigration system is broken, so we are active in doing everything we can to see that for-profit detention centers are shut down, families are reinstated, and that this family that we have in sanctuary gets due process,” said Griffin, who joined the congregation of about 700 members three months after it voted to provide sanctuary in May 2017.

With that vote, Cedar Lane joined a long list of congregations that have voted to provide and have provided sanctuary. According to Susan Leslie, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Congregational Advocacy and Witness director, 111 UU congregations in thirty-four states have voted to provide sanctuary; thirteen congregations in eight states either are providing sanctuary now or have in the past.

They’re all part of the New Sanctuary Movement that emerged in 2007.

The idea of houses of worship as protected ground has ancient roots. While U.S. immigration authorities are not barred by law from arresting undocumented people in sanctuary, they have so far honored the tradition by not sending agents into churches.

Instead, the administration is putting pressure on people in sanctuary by other means.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has since late last year started sending undocumented people letters of intent to impose civil fines accrued during their time spent sheltered in houses of worship. According to published reports, at $799 a day, the fines have amounted in some cases to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The New York Times reported this summer that people in sanctuary in Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina had received notifications of fines ranging from $214,000 to nearly $500,000.

One letter sent this summer went to Abbie Arevalo-Herrera from Honduras, who has been in sanctuary with her son and daughter since June 2018 at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, Virginia. The ice letter told Arevalo-Herrera about its intention to fine her just over $295,000.

The Rev. Jeanne M. Pupke, the church’s senior minister, said the congregation would not pursue a formal response to the ICE letter, which she called “arbitrary, punitive, and entirely political. A fair and just administration would understand that these fines are not constructive engagements with people seeking asylum.”

An ICE spokeswoman, Carol Danko, has said in published reports that the agency is “committed to using various enforcement methods—including arrest, detention, technological monitoring, and financial penalties” to enforce the law.

Griffin said Rosa Gutierrez Lopez had not received a fine notice. Asked if she’s concerned about that possibility, Griffin said, “I think that particular policy is a tool of white supremacy culture . . . by imposing fines on someone who is already vulnerable you are ensuring that the dominant culture remains in power.”

Advocates representing seven women who have received the letters are mounting a legal challenge, said David Bennion, founder and executive director of the Free Migration Project, an immigrant advocacy organization. He said they plan to argue in part that the fines would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protections. The amendment prohibits the federal government from carrying out “cruel and unusual punishment,” and imposing “excessive” bail and fines.

Bennion said that the law the government is citing in these cases applies only to people who have remained in the country past a removal order, not to churches or supporters, who would not be liable for the fines. If the government decides to take action against clergy or other supporters, it would proceed under another law.

This summer, Lopez’s lawyer, Jasmin Tohidi, filed arguments with a federal immigration appeals board to have her case for asylum reopened, partly on the basis of increasing danger in El Salvador. The appeal to reopen the case could take eighteen months or more, then arguing the case anew could take years more, Tohidi said.

It’s been years since the case began. Lopez’s first deportation order came in 2006 and she’s been checking in consistently with ICE. Since May 2017 she’s been wearing a black strap on her left ankle about the width of an ACE bandage, an electronic monitor that would signal ICE if she leaves the Maryland-Virginia-Washington area, Tohidi said.

It’s been fourteen years since Lopez left El Salvador in fear of threats from a group of neighborhood men. She said she took buses to Guatemala, then to Mexico, working jobs along the way. From the U.S.-Mexico border she said she walked to Houston, Texas. She settled down awhile there, then moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, looking for the man who is her oldest child’s father. She does not know where to find him or the two men who fathered her two younger children.

The children—12, 9, and 7 years old—are now enrolled in public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Lopez is taking English classes and expected to start yoga classes at the church. No immigration agents have been spotted around the property, but she said she sticks to the church grounds, playing it safe.

Her two older children wonder how long their life will be like this. Lopez tells them not to worry, she said, and holds onto an idea about life in the United States that she envisioned when she began this journey in October 2005.

“I heard from a lot of people that the U.S. was a place that was free,” she said, “a place where I could work, where people’s rights were respected.”

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