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Undocumented Grandma Forced to Hide In Church to Avoid ICE

"If this woman is a priority for deportation, if ICE is really intent on separating this family, then all bets are off. Who is safe at that point?”
Photo by Dylan M Howell Photography via Stocksy

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega is a 45-year-old Guatemalan woman living in North Carolina. Up until recently, her greatest joy was having her two granddaughters spend the night at her home—the same house in Asheboro she's lived in for 20 years. This past weekend, however, she left the comforts of the life she's built to move into a tiny church an hour away from her family.

Tobar Ortega, a seamstress, is undocumented; after spending the last six years checking in with ICE annually, she was ordered in April to leave the country by May 31. Instead, she took sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro. (According to ICE policy, places of worship are considered "sensitive locations" that immigration officials are supposed to avoid enforcing action at.)


Yesterday, during a press conference outside the church—where, according to the Triad City Beat, more than 50 people came out to show support, holding signs that read "Divided We Fall" and "What if this was your mom"— Tobar Ortega's eldest daughter Lesvi Molina said that the family has tried everything to fight the deportation order; taking refuge inside the church was the mother of four's last resort. "We're only asking them to continue to grant her a stay of removal, as ICE has done for the past six years," Molina said. "My mom has spent about $17,000 over the last 23 years trying to adjust her status. We would like there to be a path for her to get permanent residency, but ICE just seems to want to punish, not to work with us."

Read more: Undocumented Mother of Four Living in Church Basement Named to Time 100 List

Tobar Ortega's criminal record is clean, yet she currently wears a tracking device ordered by ICE. During the previous administration, she wasn't a target for deportation because immigration officials were ordered to focus on people with certain criminal convictions. However, in January, President Trump signed an executive order that expanded who can be considered a priority for action. Bill Chandler, an immigrant advocate in Mississippi, told Broadly previously that since the order was signed, immigration officials "have been like mad dogs released from their leashes, running around and arresting people." So far, immigrant arrests under Trump are up, though actual deportations are down.


"If you're ordered removed from the United States, this agency is going to carry that out," ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox told the Greensboro News & Record. "It should come as no surprise to any of those individuals."

"We have to get her out of here"

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has led the effort to bring more attention to Tobar Ortega's case. In addition to launching an online petition calling on immigration officials to cancel her deportation order—as of press time, the petition had received more than 2,100 signatures—the group has also helped campaign for intervention from lawmakers, including Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Tillis is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which handles immigration matters.

Photo of Tobar Ortego courtesy of Andrew Willis Garcés

The problem is that Tobar Ortega has a flag on her record, explains Andrew Willis Garcés, a community organizer with AFSC, who says she came to the country in the early '90s to flee violence. When she applied for asylum, she was denied, but during her appeal, the US government gave her a work permit. Before a decision could be made on that appeal, her daughter, who was nine at the time and living in Guatemala, became deathly ill. "Instead of waiting the couple of weeks to get permission to travel back to Guatemala, she left the country," Garcés tells Broadly. "When she tried to re-enter after her daughter was nursed back to health, she thought she was doing the right thing by buying what she thought was an entry permit, but turned out not to be." As a result, he says immigration officials have pegged her for visa fraud.


"That's why lawmakers haven't been eager to support her yet," Garcés continues. "That's why there's a campaign team trying to convince [Sen. Tillis] that if we're not standing for this family's safety and integrity, what are we doing? If this woman is a priority for deportation, if ICE is really intent on separating this family, then all bets are off. Who is safe at that point?"

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Broadly spoke with Tobar Ortega this morning by phone. She says she's holding up well, but "it's not very comfortable. To be closed up all day, not being able to leave, is tough."

But, she says, "God is the one who gives me strength to not have fear."

She also shares the toll the situation is taking on her family: "They're very sad, very depressed," she explained. "My youngest son who is 15 years old is really depressed, and that's got me really worried because he's still an adolescent."

Garcés says although Tobar Ortega and her family get to see each other much more than they would had she returned to Guatemala, they're still basically separated. "We have to get her out of here," he says. "We have to get ICE to lift the deportation order, to cancel it, and that is going to take a fight."