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'An Act Of Faithful Resistance': Congregations Offer Refuge For Immigrants


There is a battle over a wall in Washington, D.C.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The southern border is a dangerous, horrible disaster. We've done a great job. But you can't really do the kind of job we have to do unless you have a major, powerful barrier.

FADEL: The president is digging in his heels, and so are the Democrats. Here's Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.


NANCY PELOSI: A wall is an immorality. It's not who we are as a nation. And this is not a wall between Mexico and the United States that the president is creating here. It's a wall between reality and his constituents.

FADEL: In the backdrop of this political battle are people caught up in this dispute over immigration. Across the country, congregations of many faiths are providing sanctuary to immigrants with deportation orders. Advocates say it's in response to the Trump administration's crackdown on the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. One of those sanctuaries is in Bethesda, Md. Outside Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, there are rainbow flags, a Black Lives Matter sign and a banner that says, prayer is not enough.


FADEL: Inside is Rosa Gutierrez Lopez (ph).


ROSA GUTIERREZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

JANAMANCHI: Did you sleep well?

FADEL: We meet Lopez in the chapel. We sit in a pew. She's been living in this church for nearly a month. Federal immigration officials ordered her to leave the country by December 10 because she's been living in the country illegally. She even bought a ticket. But at the last minute, she found this church and sought refuge instead.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: Lopez says she decided to stay here because of her U.S.-born children. She has three - 11, 9 and 6 years old. The youngest has Down syndrome and a lot of health needs. She's their primary caregiver.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: In El Salvador, there are no specialists for her youngest son. It's a country she fled 13 years ago, she says, because of threats against her and her family.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: And it's only gotten worse since. Over the last three years, nearly 20,000 people have been killed in El Salvador in gang violence. Tens of thousands have fled north, searching for safety.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: Lopez says she fears for her life because since she's been in the United States, three family members have been killed...

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: An uncle, a nephew, a brother-in-law. Her lawyer, Hector Perez-Casillas, says Lopez has a good case for asylum. He just needs the time to make it. He's filed a motion to reopen the case and to stay Lopez's deportation order.

HECTOR PEREZ-CASILLAS: The gangs who have targeted her family, when they target someone, it's not just one particular person that they target. They target an entire family. So as you can imagine, this mother of three should present a very easy target for the gangs.

FADEL: When Lopez first came to the United States in 2005, she presented herself to immigration officials at the border and was given a court date. But she couldn't read English, and she got confused.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: Lopez didn't show up to her hearing, and so the court gave her a removal order in absentia in 2006.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: Perez-Casillas, the lawyer, says this happens all the time. A person crosses the border looking for asylum, is given papers with a court date - but can't read it.

PEREZ-CASILLAS: Unfortunately, it is very common that people will just, months later, ask a friend that speaks English - or maybe speak to an attorney and find out, no. No, that was your court date on this date. And now, technically, you have a removal order.

FADEL: And that's what happened. In 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, found Lopez. She applied for deferred action, and it was granted. That means she had a legal work permit. Then in 2017, she tried to renew. She was rejected. When she reported to ICE again, they put an electronic ankle monitoring bracelet on her.

LOPEZ: (Crying).

FADEL: She lifts her leg. The bracelet bulges underneath her winter tights.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She says it makes her feel terrible, like a criminal. Before she sought sanctuary in the church, Lopez was working as a cook at an Italian restaurant in Fredericksburg, Va. Now she can't work to provide for her children. Inside the walls of the church, she's safe. ICE's policies discourage agents from conducting deportation actions in so-called sensitive places like schools, hospitals and places of worship. But in recent years, agents have made arrests just outside these sensitive locations in a widening crackdown on unauthorized immigration. And that crackdown is why many congregations have begun offering sanctuary.

JANAMANCHI: This is something that we feel called to be and do, both as an act of faith as well as an act of faithful resistance.

FADEL: Reverend Abhi Janamanchi is the senior minister at Cedar Lane. He says Lopez's case is indicative of a broken immigration system.

JANAMANCHI: And how we are seeking to target people and separate families using draconian measures and policies that in no way serve nor attempt to provide for the safety and security of our nation, let alone our borders.

FADEL: At church, someone stays with Lopez 24 hours a day to keep her company and to make sure she's safe. Neighbors and local officials have been supportive. But there have been critics online and in social media, saying the church is harboring a fugitive. Reverend Janamanchi dismisses the criticism and says the church is committed to providing physical sanctuary and financial and emotional support for the long haul.

JANAMANCHI: Our first and foremost priority and commitment is to Rosa, to be able to provide her with safe space and the time that she needs in order for due process to unfold.

FADEL: Until then, Lopez cannot go home to her children.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: Her kids are OK, she says. But they're sad she's not with them. During the week, her two oldest kids live with pastors from her home church, so they can keep going to school. Her youngest son, the one with Down syndrome, is staying with his dad. On the weekends, the children come to stay with Lopez. But the only place she can take them to play is the park in the church courtyard. She says her two younger kids don't understand what's happening...

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: ...But her 11-year-old daughter does.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She cries and asks Lopez when she's going to be able to come home.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FADEL: She tells her daughter, God willing, they'll find a way to be together soon.


FADEL: Rosa Gutierrez Lopez's case is pending in immigration court but can't move forward until after the government shutdown. We reached out to ICE about Lopez's case and received this automatic reply. All of ICE's public affairs officers are out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown. We are unable to respond to media queries during this period because we are prohibited by law from working. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.