Juana Tobar Ortega

EN – Juana Tobar Ortega is a mother of four and grandmother of three who lives in Asheboro, North Carolina and had worked as an upholstery sewer technician in High Point for 23 years. She arrived in 1992 from Guatemala, having been threatened by the armed combatants, and applied for political asylum status. She was denied in 1994, and then was offered a work permit while she appealed her status, which took six years.

In 1999 her eldest daughter in Guatemala suffered a life-threatening illness, and she left the country and returned without permission in order to be her caregiver. Her troubles began after re-entering the United States and 2 years later a deportation order was issued. ICE subsequently denied her appeal, and in 2011 took her into custody, then released her a week later. Since then she had reported to the Charlotte ICE office periodically for required check-ins until April of 2017, when the Trump administration took office. Instead of accepting her attorney’s plea for a stay of removal, ICE fitted her with a tracking device, and ordered her to prepare voluntary departure, telling her she had until May 31st to leave the country, potentially leaving her husband, kids, grandkids, uncles, and cousins behind.

After being told that she had to leave the country, Juana and her family were forced to make an impossible decision. Through the social justice organization, American Friends Service Committee of North Carolina, Juana’s oldest daughter Lesvi Molina Tobar connected with St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and brought her mother there to learn about the possibility of sanctuary. St. Barnabas church was immediately welcoming. A few months earlier, Reverend Randall Keeney and the vestry of St. Barnabas had decided that if someone needed sanctuary, they would fashion an apartment space in their fellowship building.

So, Juana and her family decided that she would move into St. Barnabas – about 80 km from the home she and her husband Carlos Valenzuela have shared – to avoid being deported from a country she has known for more than 25 years. Juana relocated her belongings to the small room in the cinderblock building that became both her refuge and at the same time, an isolating enclosure, as she is not allowed to work or travel.

Juana was the first person to publicly take sanctuary in North Carolina in the contemporary movement (prior to this wave of sanctuary cases, a movement had begun in the 1980s in Tucson, Arizona to shelter undocumented immigrants from deportation). Others took sanctuary after her, each seeking to avoid deportation.

Juana’s family and community took her situation very seriously. Many wrote letters, knocked on members of congress’s doors, and engaged in social action campaigns publicly requesting that their local legislators take steps to help Juana get her freedom and return home. All the requests and actions were continually ignored throughout the four years president Trump was in office. A total of 71 undocumented immigrants fled to churches after Trump’s harsh immigration crackdown.

After spending four years in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, NC, Juana was finally granted a stay of removal in April, 2021. The decision stops department agents from following through with the deportation order. She was the last person in sanctuary in North Carolina granted to stay in the country since the Biden administration took office in January of 2021. Juana missed many important family events during those four years in sanctuary such as: the High School Graduation of her youngest son, Carlos Jr; youngest daughter, Jackeline Tobar’s college graduation and many birthdays and anniversaries.

While Juana recovered her freedom and was able to go back home with her family and was given a work authorization document for her to have a normal life; she is still under the eyes of ICE due to the fact that she still has to check-in every year. They will continue to renew her lawful status until they decide she needs to go or another administration decides otherwise. As the department of homeland security continues to monitor her, Juana will not have peace of mind until she is given the opportunity to apply for citizenship. Becoming a citizen would be the solution to this ongoing situation which gives her anxiety. Just to think about the fact that they could change their mind and be left with no legal status is nerve wracking for her and her family.

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