Bethesda Church Shelters Immigrant Woman Facing Deportation
Cedar Lane takes in first person after becoming sanctuary congregation
The Rev. Abhi Janamuchi and the Rev. Katie Romano Griffin of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church perform a closing ritual with Rosa Gutierrez at a vigil and news conference on Wednesday.
By Charlie Wright
Rosa Gutierrez bought a plane ticket on Monday to return to the Central American home she left 13 years ago, under pressure to self-deport by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But will her children in mind, she decided to remain in the country waiting to argue her immigration case and is taking up shelter at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda.
The Cedar Lane congregation held a vigil on Wednesday to show solidarity with Gutierrez, welcoming her into the church with music, prayers and words from faith leaders.
Gutierrez is the first person to take sanctuary at the church.
“Rosa is only asking for more time for her case to be decided,” said Omar Angel Perez, lead organizer for the DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network, a group of religious organizations joining forces to protect immigrants from deportation and discrimination.
“She is only asking for what we all want, to be heard. To be seen as a human being,” Perez said.
Cedar Lane pastor the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi said sanctuary status, not legally defined, is being respected on the basis of tradition and moral authority.
ICE policies regarding “sensitive locations” urge agents to avoid enforcement actions at places such as schools or churches when possible.
The Cedar Lane Board of Trustees voted unanimously in April 2017 to become a physical sanctuary, Janamanchi said. Cedar Lane’s congregation of 750 adult members voted in favor of the decision in May 2017.
Perez said the 40-year-old Gutierrez fled El Salvador in December 2005 for asylum in the United States, settling in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Gutierrez faced harassment from machete-carrying farmworkers in her native country, Perez said.
When she failed to check in with customs agents a month after entering the country, Gutierrez was issued a deportation in absentia notice, which she didn’t find out about until 2014, Perez said. From there, she met with ICE yearly and received a work authorization.
In 2017 under President Donald Trump, immigration restrictions tightened and Gutierrez was given an ankle monitor and asked to check with ICE every two weeks. In September 2018 her attorney, Hector Perez Casillas, filed a motion to reopen Gutierrez’ immigration case, which is pending. She was ordered to self-deport on Monday, but stayed in the country, Perez said.
“Unlawfully present El Salvadoran national Rosa Lopez Gutierrez has been afforded due process in our nation’s immigration courts and was expected to execute a voluntary departure on Dec. 10,” ICE said in a statement, which adds that anyone in violation of U.S. immigration laws may be subject to arrest, detention and removal from the country.
Speaking through an interpreter, Gutierrez said her primary motivation for remaining in the country and continuing to work on her case is her children. She has an 11-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 9 and 6. The 6-year-old has Down syndrome, and El Salvador doesn’t have the specialists needed to care for him.
“The reason why I took sanctuary is because I love my children,” Gutierrez said. “I did not want to leave to my country, I wanted to fight here. It’s very difficult for me.”
Gutierrez will be separated from the three children for the first time while in sanctuary, but she said she’ll remain at Cedar Lane until her case is heard.
There were an estimated 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2016, representing 3.3 percent of the total U.S. population that year, according to the Pew Research Center. Maryland’s unauthorized immigrant population as of 2014 was estimated at 250,000 people, according to the center.
Montgomery County Executive’s Interfaith Community Liaison the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman said the sanctuary of Gutierrez has the approval of the county. County Executive Marc Elrich and County Council President Nancy Navarro were unable to attend Wednesday’s service.
“We are a welcoming county, one that protects the most vulnerable among us,” Navarro said in a letter read by Kaseman. “But federal government’s Draconian immigration policies are in stark contrast to the values of what Montgomery County stands for as they seek to divide families and communities instead of bringing them together.”