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Undocumented Immigrants Are Hiding in Churches to Avoid Deportation

Sulma Franco, a lesbian activist from Guatemala, has moved into a Texas church to hide from immigration agents, part of a growing sanctuary movement in the US.
July 15, 2015, 12:48am
Screencap via Sanctuary2014

Sulma Franco's black spike heels clanked down the corridor of the Texas church building, as she lead me to her room, the one she's been living in for weeks, ever since US immigrations officials told her she was definitely, without question or further recourse, going to be deported. Her red-tinted mane fell down the shoulders of a white suit jacket, and she glanced back, hesitating through her thick eye makeup—"You can only stay a moment. My girlfriend is visiting and she's very shy," she said Spanish. "Please don't ask her any questions."

Franco, a 32-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, is used to greeting visitors in the lobby of the Austin First Universalist Unitarian Church, the place that has been her home and sanctuary since June. But she brings few people back to her new bedroom, a converted classroom tucked back on the property. I assured her I'd only stay a minute, and she cautiously lead me inside.

Because of the deportation order, Franco cannot leave the church grounds. She's been in the US since 2009, when she petitioned for political asylum on the grounds that she had faced persecution for her sexual orientation in her home country. She lost the case in 2012, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials ordered her to be removed from the US that July. She contested the decision, and remained in the country as the process dragged on for nearly two years. Then, in February, she lost her final appeal, and the government ordered her to turn herself in last month for deportation.

But US immigration policy prevents agents from raiding houses of worship, except when individuals pose a security risk. So on June 11, the day Franco was supposed to report to the ICE office, she moved from her apartment in Austin to the nearby Unitarian church, where she has lived since.

Her room there is colorful, with a tall shelf of psychology books and novels and a dresser with an open album of DVDs on top. Members of the church's congregation donated the furniture when Franco moved in, and a local student group came in to build a shower. When I entered, Franco's girlfriend was sitting stoically on the bed watching "The L Word" dubbed in Spanish on a flatscreen TV. She rose to kiss Franco hello. Franco softened, and asked if I wanted something to eat, offering up refried beans and baked chicken from the apartment's small dining area.

"I feel locked up here, but I'll stay as long as I have to," she told me. "At least here, I can be free to love whom I want."

Her case is part of a resurgent sanctuary movement in the US known as Sanctuary2014, a coalition of faith groups and immigration advocates looking for new ways to prevent what they see as unjust deportations of undocumented migrants by the US government. The idea, said Reverend Noel Andersen, an immigration activist andone of the group's lead organizers, is to protect individuals from immediate deportation, giving them more time to fight their cases in court. In the past year, 24 congregations have signed on as sanctuaries, according to the Sanctuary2014 website, and the group has won six of its cases so far.

"For us, this is a way to use the pulpit as a way to lift up the stories and the voices of the people most impacted by broken policies," said Andersen. "The Bible teaches to welcome the stranger and the sanctuary movement takes that prophetic hospitality to another level."

Sulma Franco in the makeshift bedroom she can't leave. Photo by author

The coalition began its efforts last May, after Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in Tucson, Arizona, was given an order for deportation following a routine traffic stop for a leaky tail pipe. Although Ruiz had no criminal record, a court refused his lawyer's request for a one-year stay of deportation. So Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson granted him sanctuary—after one month, the court granted Ruiz the stay.

The case represented a major victory for the sanctuary movement, said Anderson, and inspired other churches to offer themselves up as sanctuaries to individuals who face deportation, but who ICE has deemed eligible for prosecutorial discretion. That policy, implemented in 2011, shifts ICE's focus away from deporting individuals who have no criminal record and familial ties in the states, stating that the agency should consider an individual's "ties to the home country and conditions in the home country" and "ties and contributions to the community."

The new wave of church activism is in many ways a revival of the Sanctuary Movement that took hold in the US during the 1980 in response to a wave of migrants fleeing civil strife in Central America. Although Congress had passed the Refugee Act in 1980, setting a uniform process for granting asylum to victims of persecution in their home countries, then-President Ronald Reagan declined to extend the protection to the thousands of Central American migrants crossing the border into the US. Churches started harboring immigrants who would otherwise have faced deportation, and though immigration agents did not raid churches, some faith leaders who participated were arrested for allegedly helping smuggle illegal immigrants into the country.

The decade-long struggle eventually prompted policy reform , with Congress agree to grant many Central American migrants Central Temporary Protected Status that allowed them to remain in the country. And in recent years, churches have been granted additional protections in providing sanctuary. Since 2011, ICE has explicitly mandated that agents should not enter churches or schools to remove individuals, unless those individuals pose a security threat. Andersen said that so far, no agents have violated that policy, and that none of the faith leaders involved in the current sanctuary movement have been arrested for helping undocumented migrants.

Want more? Watch The Business of Life: What's the Price of US Citizenship?

According to Anderson, Franco is the first known lesbian asylum seeker to take sanctuary in a US church, and her case represents a new focus on expanding protection for LGBT migrantsexpanding protection for LGBT migrants, many of whom, like Franco, have escaped persecution and abuse in their home countries.

Chris Jimmerson, an assistant minister at Austin's First Universalist Unitarian Church, said that the church's leadership felt particularly compelled to take Franco in because of her sexual orientation, deciding immediately to provide her with sanctuary after being approached by the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition about her case last month.

"All three of our ministers here are gay," Jimmerson told me in an interview. "If Sulma were to be deported she's afraid she would lose her life. LGBT rights aren't respected in Guatemala."

Sitting in his office on a recent Sunday, still wearing his blue robes from the morning service, Jimmerson, a former immigration rights activist with American Gateways, said that the congregation was also willing to "take a risk" by hosting Franco—although he added that he doesn't expect ICE agents to come banging down the church's door.

"This was great for the church. Our mission says, 'we gather in community to nourish souls, transform lives, and do justice,' and folks really feel like we're living out our mission now," he said. "She can go anywhere she wants on the grounds. We want her to feel like she's part of the community, not in detention."

To that end, Franco has started giving Spanish lessons to churchgoers. At a special immigration hosted by the church earlier this month, she told her story to the congregation, recounting the abuse she suffered as a child, her years as a student activist for LGBT rights at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, and her eventual escape to the US, where she was captured by immigration officials and sent to a detention center soon after crossing the border into Texas.

Related: Transgender Immigrants Still Face Rampant Abuse in US Detention Centers

As we talked in her apartment, Franco continued this story. She tells me that she was released from detention after four months, after ICE determined she had a "credible fear" of returning to her home country. She settled in San Antonio, eventually relocating to Austin after meeting her girlfriend there. (The girlfriend asked not to be named because she is also undocumented.)

"We've been together for five years, and I admire her. She's a very hard worker," Franco said, adding that before the deportation order, the couple had hoped to start a food truck. "We've always worked together and risen above together."

As Franco built her life in Texas, she fought an uphill battle to remain in the US. She claims her lawyer wasn't able to obtain critical evidence from her family, and then failed to inform her when the request for asylum was denied (VICE could not confirm this account.) She's now looking for a new lawyer, and plans to keep fighting to stay in the US permanently.

But ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok told me that Franco's case has run its course in immigration court. "Sulma Franco, a national of Guatemala, has been afforded full due process and exhausted all legal options," he said in an email. He confirmed that a federal immigration judge ordered Franco removed to Guatemala in July 2012, and that a subsequent appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals was dismissed in November 2013; the 9 th Circuit Court of Appeals declined a petition to review Franco's case this February.

Still, Franco and her advocates haven't given up hope."She's had complications with her case, but we're contacting lawyers currently on her behalf," said Austin immigration activist Mizraim Belman, who is leading a deportation defense team that is providing aid to Franco and other undocumented immigrants. "She feared for her life in Guatemala, and continues to fear for her life if she must return."

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