Nearly four years ago, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega became the first undocumented immigrant in North Carolina to publicly go into sanctuary under the previous administration. Nearly four years later, Tobar Ortega has been able to go home due to new Biden administration priorities, last week becoming the last undocumented immigrant in the state to leave sanctuary.
“Ortega was busy greeting church members who came to congratulate her on her freedom Monday and was not able to talk,” Religion News Service (RNS) reported at the time. WFAE reports that in a statement released by Siembra NC, Tobar Ortega said she wanted “to thank God and all of the people who have helped us. I wish blessings to everyone who has supported me and my family. I’m so glad to be able to return home.”
Tobar Ortega had gone into sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro in May 2017, when ICE ordered her deported back to Guatemala after more than two decades in the U.S. “There’s absolutely no reason for this woman to be torn away from her family and her community,” WFDD reports Rev. Randall Keeney said at the time. “She’s a child of God and we will give her shelter until ICE drops her deportation order.”
“To keep busy, Ortega uses her sewing machine to make aprons and pillows she can sell to the community,” NBC News reported as she approached her two-year anniversary in sanctuary in 2019. “She’s also started a catering business from the church’s kitchen, where she makes tamales to sell.”
The two-year anniversary was then marked by the release of a documentary, “Santuario,” which detailed her day to day life while in sanctuary. It was filled with heartbreaking moments made all the more frustrating when remembering that ICE didn’t have to make her a priority for deportation in the first place. In one scene in the documentary, an elder daughter cries before visiting Tobar Ortega at St. Barnabas. “I don’t want to show this type of emotion in front of her, when I already know she’s struggling,” she said in the film. “So … just trying to hang on.”
Family had been able to spend the night at the church in the small living space constructed for Tobar Ortega, and RNS reports that “[r]ecently, they brought her a small chihuahua mix to live with her; she called it ‘baby.’” But none of it compared to being able to be home and with her family. Then last week, they got the news they’d been praying for: Tobar Ortega would be going home.
“It’s absolutely because of the new administration’s policies,”Siembra NC’s Andrew Willis Garces told News & Record. She’ll still be required to check in with ICE, meaning there’s still the need for permanent relief for her and her family. “She expects to get a work permit in the next few days,” the report continued.
But while Tobar Ortega is now back home where she belongs, she can never regain the nearly four years she lost. RNS reports she missed her son’s high school graduation, and the birth of her third grandchild. Church World Service grassroots coordinator Noel Andersen told RNS that the organization estimates two dozen undocumented immigrants are still in sanctuary elsewhere in the nation, and also waiting for the day to come when they too can return to their homes.
“Juana has been a beacon of courage for immigrant women across the country for the last four years,” Siembra NC Executive Director Kelly Morales said according to WFAE. “She has worked tirelessly all this time to support local and national immigrant rights organizing at the same time as she was continuing to practice her craft as a seamstress to help support her family.”
“I’m glad she can finally return home and rest, and I hope the administration will continue to use its authority to grant stays of removal to North Carolinians like her, hundreds of whom still have active orders of removal which could result in needless family separation,” Morales continued.
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