Last Sanctuary Asylum Seeker in North Carolina Returns Home

After spending nearly four years in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega was able to return home without fear of deportation.

Ortega, 48, is one of many immigrants fearing deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, after her attorney successfully secured her a “stay of removal,” the mother of four and grandmother of three is now looking to obtain a work permit.

Ortega, originally from Guatemala took refuge at the church on May 31, 2017, after being ordered to leave the country. Previously, she had been living in the United States for 28 years, mostly in the North Carolina town of Asheboro. Despite her marriage to Carlos – an American citizen – Ortega still found herself under pressure from ICE.

Prior to taking sanctuary, Ortega worked as a seamstress at a local furniture company in High Point, North Carolina. It was not till during a raid on her employer where Ortega was arrested for entering the country illegally did she realize her asylum claim had been denied. Each year since the raid, she had been required to check in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to receive a one-year stay of deportation — until 2017, when it was denied.

Because houses of worship are considered “sensitive locations,” a federal status that means federal immigration enforcement officers will not arrest, search or interview people on the premises under most circumstances, Ortega was safe as long as she did not leave the church. 

Despite being the first person in the state of North Carolina to seek sanctuary in a congregation, Ortega is the last to leave.

On April 19, 2021, Ortega left St. Barnabas with a smile on her face excited and grateful for the opportunity to return home to her husband.

Source: Baptist Standard