WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A tearful Rosa Ines Gutierrez Lopez recalled the moment when she had to break the news to her three young children, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome, that authorities were deporting her to El Salvador after living in the United States for more than a decade.
“I was sitting on the couch with them and I told them I had to go, they were making me go to my country,” Gutierrez Lopez told Reuters, her eyes tearing up as she recounted how she broke the news to her daughter, 11, and two sons, 9 and 6, who were all born in the United States.
But Gutierrez Lopez, a single mother, has yet to leave the country after getting her deportation order in December. Instead, she took refuge on the grounds of a Maryland church that offered her sanctuary and a chance to remain in her adopted homeland with her children.
The Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, located in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, offered Gutierrez Lopez an apartment to live in while a pastor from her local church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, cares for her children. She moved in on Dec. 10, the same day U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had ordered her to leave the country.
Like Gutierrez Lopez, dozens of migrants are now believed to be sheltering in U.S. places of worship, according to migrant advocacy groups.
U.S. immigration authorities are not prohibited from detaining people in houses of worship. But ICE has a written policy of not arresting anyone at “sensitive locations,” including schools, hospitals, rallies and churches, except in cases involving national security or when there is imminent risk of violence.
Gutierrez Lopez was detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005 after fleeing El Salvador because she said she feared for her life. Authorities released her and ordered her to appear in immigration court, but she chose not to show up on the day her case was scheduled.
Instead, she began a new life as an undocumented immigrant in Virginia, she said in an interview on Wednesday, finding work in a restaurant and starting a family.
U.S. President Donald Trump has tried to crack down on immigrants living illegally in the United States and has spoken out against those who do not appear at court hearings.
Eventually, Gutierrez Lopez turned herself in to immigration authorities in 2014 and was regularly issued deportation stays and work permits until last month, when she was ordered to self-deport. She said everything changed when Trump took office.
“Under the Obama administration, I only went to report in every year,” she said. “Under Donald Trump’s administration, I received an ankle bracelet ... It hurts my soul because I’m not a criminal.”
During his candidacy and in the White House, Trump has pointed to crimes committed by illegal immigrants as evidence of the need for tough enforcement of immigration laws.
But despite the reality of deportations, which increased to record numbers under former President Barack Obama, desperate people fleeing Central America’s endemic violence and poverty continued to push toward the southern U.S. border in 2018.
Trump is demanding that $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border be included in any legislation funding government agencies, something Democrats in Congress oppose. The dispute has triggered a partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22.
Reporting by Arlene Eiras and Katharine Jackson; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Tom Brown and Daniel Wallis