WASHINGTON — Yoga. Meditation. English.
These are some of the skills Rosa Gutiérrez López has learned since Dec. 10, 2018, when she became the first unauthorized immigrant to get refuge inside a religious institution in the Washington area.
The Salvadoran immigrant periodically shares her experience with members of congregations interested in also offering sanctuary, and feels more relaxed since her three U.S.-born children joined her six months after she moved into the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, located 9 miles from the White House.
But even with the peace of mind she has found in her shelter, Gutiérrez struggles with the idea that she is confined to a seven-acre campus. Her case is seen by some as evidence of a cruel system that needlessly punishes immigrants with no criminal records, while immigration authorities and others say whoever comes into the country without authorization needs to deal with the consequences.
“Sometimes I take half-hour walks (inside the campus) but I never make it to the street. That is forbidden to me,” Gutiérrez told The Associated Press during a recent interview. She is also eager to remove from her ankle the 5.5-ounce electronic shackle that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, fitted her with two years ago.
While she is legally a fugitive who could be arrested at any time, ICE considers churches and some other places to be “sensitive locations” and generally does not pursue people inside.
“I have faith that I will not remain here indefinitely. I know God will hear my prayers and one day they will change their minds,” Gutiérrez said.
But so far ICE has refused to receive a motion to stay her removal unless she submits it in person.
An ICE spokesperson told the AP that Gutiérrez “has been afforded due process in our nation’s immigration courts and was granted voluntary departure, but failed to depart as required. She is currently an immigration fugitive, subject to a final order of removal.”
“It is a catch-22 and that is where we are kind of stuck,” said Gutiérrez’s lawyer, Jasmin Tohidi. “I would not advise her to leave the sanctuary because all of us know what they want to do if she leaves.”
There are precedents. A Mexican immigrant who sought refuge in a North Carolina church for nearly a year was deported in 2018 after he left the church to have his fingerprints taken as part of an application to stay in the U.S. to financially support his son and ailing wife.
Gutiérrez said the Trump’s administration needs to understand that immigrants come to the United States to work honestly and provide for their families, and leave behind violence and poverty.
“I pray for President Trump to change his heart,” she said.
Gutiérrez decided to take sanctuary after getting a deportation order due to her unauthorized entry into Texas in 2005. She refuses to leave behind her three kids, especially the youngest, a 7-year-old with Down syndrome who receives weekly therapy.
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior minister at Cedar Lane, said his congregation is committed to hosting Gutiérrez and her children as long as they need sanctuary.
About 150 volunteers take turns providing her with companionship, doing the groceries and being advocates for her three children at school. She does yoga and meditation, sings in the choir, and thanks to her daily English lessons she is now able to understand most of what she hears on radio and television.
“It has been wonderful having the opportunity to be a sanctuary for doña Rosa,” Janamanchi said. “I feel we have grown a lot with her, in learning how to be in relationship with one another and we have grown in our understanding about being a living sanctuary and to practice hospitality.”
Gutiérrez plans to ask her doctor about a possible fast to make politicians pay attention to her situation.
Omar Pérez, lead organizer with DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network, said a group of congregations in the Washington area that provide support to immigrants who fear being detained, deported or profiled has received six requests for sanctuary since it started helping Gutiérrez a year ago. But there are only two other immigrants in their sanctuaries besides Gutiérrez and both are in Virginia: one in Charlottesville and another in Richmond.
“Rosa has gone from being someone who desperately looked for a last resource to avoid deportation, to being someone who is actively helping us organize support for people who are in a similar situation,” Pérez said.
Richard Morales, director of La Red, an immigrant rights campaign run by Faith in Action, said the number of immigrants who currently enjoy sanctuary protection across the country has remained at around 50 over the past year.
“Nothing has changed. We are still in the same place we were a year ago,” he said.
Gutiérrez said she cries when she hears news stories of children separated from their parents by immigration officers at the border. But she has been able to find solace sharing time with her children, and cooking. Her to-do list shows pan con pollo – or bread with chicken – a traditional Christmas dish from her country.
“They have welcomed me in this church with a lots of love and as a member of the family,” she said.
Luis Alonso Lugo on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/luisalonsolugo