CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — 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. Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship meets in the same building, and both churches offered her refuge from deportation 22 months ago.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled 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.”
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.
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.”
Places of refuge
Nationwide, there are 47 undocumented immigrants who have publicly announced they are taking refuge in U.S. religious congregations, according to Church World Service. That includes Ortez-Cruz, who will remain at the church for a few weeks until her lawyer gets 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 federal immigration enforcement officers will avoid arresting, searching or interviewing people there under most circumstances.
Although she has had her hard days, Ortez-Cruz found ways to occupy herself while in sanctuary. She took over the church kitchen, cooking pupusas, empanadas and taquitos. Twice a month, she prepared a fellowship meal for Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. She offered to cater meals for takeout.
At Thanksgiving she prepared food for a homeless shelter.
“I feel like something in me has changed, and I’ve learned to be a better person,” Ortez-Cruz said. “When I’m freed, I want to help people in need.”
Last year, Ortez-Cruz was one of a dozen people taking refuge in sanctuary churches who received a letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement informing them they owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties for disobeying orders to leave the country. After her lawyer appealed, ICE notified Ortez-Cruz it was dropping the $300,000 fine.
Ortez-Cruz was embraced by two congregations meeting at Church of Reconciliation — an older Presbyterian congregation and a younger Mennonite group. She said she formed close ties to members of both churches.
A growing relationship
Isaac Villegas, pastor of the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, said a total of 160 people from 11 congregations volunteered to help Ortez-Cruz during her nearly two-year confinement. One volunteer stayed at the church with her every night in case Immigration and Customs Enforcement came knocking. Others helped wash her laundry once a week (the church doesn’t have a washing machine) and buy her groceries.
The two main churches raised money to foot her legal bills.
“We’ve grown together,” said Villegas. “She’s part of our church life. We’ve come to share lives together. It will feel strange and probably empty to not have her here.”
Ortez-Cruz said her biggest hardship was being away from her children, who have been living with relatives in Greensboro, 55 miles away. She plans to stay in Chapel Hill and looks forward to bringing her family there.
“I feel like I’ve built a community here,” she said. “They always greet me with so many hugs. I know they care about me a lot.”